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Grades

[ 120 ] April 11, 2011 |

Some notes of caution on these sentiments from Matthew Yglesias…

Note that if you want to go to law school, getting good grades in college is probably important. If you want to be a writer, then writing stuff that’s interesting and getting professional writers to read it is important. I got the worst grade of my whole college career in Theda Skocpol’s class on American social policy, and that’s never stopped me from writing about American social policy—nobody’s ever asked or cared whether professors liked my essays.

And Jonathan Bernstein…

Two things about that. First, as far as I can tell he’s totally correct about grades. They might matter for postgrad admissions, especially for those planning to go immediately after college. But mostly, they won’t matter very much in your life. My pre-grad school career consisted of working on Capitol Hill; I did a lot of job hunting (and wound up with two excellent positions over the four years plus I spent there), and as near as I can remember no one ever asked me about my grades.

From my experience on several graduate admissions committees, I can say that it is extremely difficult to apologize for low undergraduate grades. Outstanding GREs don’t do it by themselves, nor does work experience, military service, etc. Fairly or not, poor undergraduate grades suggest to the admissions committee that the candidate is lazy, unfocused, and unserious about the academic project. This is true even for a school like Patterson, which is focused around policy rather than academia. I suspect that a lot of smart undergraduates don’t understand that weak undergrad grades effectively lock them out of good graduate programs, even several years down the road from their college career. If you’re an undergraduate and you’re really quite certain that you’ll never be interested in graduate study or law school, then letting your grades suffer in pursuit of other opportunities may make sense. Doing so, however, can foreclose future options.

Comments (120)

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  1. bay of arizona says:

    Don’t know where Bernstein went to school, but I doubt grades are something people worry about at Harvard.

    Its for the little people in public schools to be concerned with.

    • pts says:

      Not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, but speaking as a Harvard grad, your claim is false. Prestigious institutions give you a bump in grad admissions, but I had some departments I applied to tell me that one factor for my rejection was that they didn’t like my grades.

  2. Gulliver says:

    As a 31-year old with unimpressive academic credentials and the exceptionally good fortune (and believe me, it is: in nearly any circumstances — but especially if you’ve made poor grades — career success will depend upon good luck) to stumble into meaningful work in spite of my resume, I approve of this message.

  3. Superking says:

    Yeah, but who wants to go to law school? Most of us who went end up regretting it in one way or another. Good grades are certainly important actual grad school, but for a second rate discipline like law, you can find some school to attend no matter how bad your grades are.

    • Steve-o says:

      “Most of us who went end up regretting it in one way or another.”

      Amen brother.

    • PSP says:

      “Most of us who went end up regretting it in one way or another.”

      Most?

      • Malaclypse says:

        Most?

        I don’t, even though I did not finish the dissertation, in what I thought was a disaster in my 20s.

        Of course, this was an era when you got paid to go, rather than the other way around.

    • Felf says:

      I went to law school – which I hated – and have a fabulous career as a non-profit attorney. While I am lucky to have a job that I love – a certain amount of luck, good or bad, accounts for much of what happens in life – and while my good grades in college and in law school don’t directly impact the work that I do, my ability to get into a good law school and get onto the path of jobs to the one I have now (and have had for several years) was definitely positively impacted by having gotten grades.

    • Anonymous says:

      The funny thing is that according to everyone I’ve talked to about Law School Admissions- its almost a complete inversion of the Grades,Work,Testing paradigm used for Grad School Admissions- for Law School a good GPA is a prequisite for the upper tier schools but for the lower tier programs at least ones GPA past a certain (much lower) point is almost immaterial in comparison to one’s LSAT scores.

      • law student speaking from experience says:

        A good GPA is not a pre-requisite for the “upper-tier” schools, unless your understanding of upper-tier includes only about 5-7 schools or by “good GPA” you mean something higher than 2.8. The LSAT and other items can compensate at nearly all schools, including several of the top 10.

  4. elm says:

    Also, Matt Y recommends doing internships with places that might hire you.

    Very good advice, though most competitive internships want you to send in a copy of your transcript with your application. Could be hard to explain if your transcript is littered with C’s and D’s.

    Also, if letters of rec from profs are needed (or if the prof can in some other way help you in your career advancement), doing well in the prof’s class is usually essential.

    I think Matt’s right that doing poorly in class does not preclude success. Further, he’s right that when faced with a choice of how to spend one’s time, sometimes the right choice is to do something other than study or work hard on a paper or something. But getting good grades helps one end up with a good job in a lot more areas than just wanting to apply for law school.

  5. Marc says:

    bay et al.: Sorry, the views of people who actually sit on graduate admissions committees are the ones that matter here.

    If you’re applying for a job people may at least see your GPA, and if it is low you’ll be hurting. If you think you might ever want to go to graduate school then you need to care, a lot, about your grades – because low grades are a giant red flag and you’re competing with plenty of folks who don’t have any low grades. And they’re creative and smart too, with good letter writers, and you’re costing yourself chances that you otherwise wouldn’t have.

    Even if you went to Harvard.

    • bay of arizona says:

      The majority of all grades at Harvard are A’s, aren’t they? Is it even possible to flunk out?

      • pts says:

        Maybe they are (though it varies by department and it is demonstrably untrue in mine), but as someone who has graded at two flagship state schools, the grading standards at Harvard were much higher.

      • Malaclypse says:

        The majority of all grades at Harvard are A’s, aren’t they? Is it even possible to flunk out?

        Having once made the god-awful mistake of reading Prozac Nation, Wutzel does make it pretty clear that there is absolutely nothing you can do to flunk out.

        • dave says:

          She only read it? I thought she wrote it?

        • Halloween Jack says:

          Is that something that Betsy Wurtzel actually said, or is it something that you deduced from the fact that she graduated? If the former, well, she’s not the most reliable narrator IMO, and if the latter, I’d always gotten the impression that she was bright enough, but managed to get through life on bullshit instead.

    • DrDick says:

      Absolutely. Even at my lowly third tier state university, grades are the first thing we look at in graduate admissions. Low grades will kill you faster than marginal GREs.

      • elm says:

        Yeah, at my second-tier state school, we prefer people with good grades but marginal GRE’s to someone with great GRE’s but only mediocre grades. We figure the latter are smart but lazy or unmotivated or dilletantes, and these characteristics tend not to lend themselves to success in our program. (Of course, GREs that are too low cannot be rescued even with a 4.0 and letters and writing samples etc. also matter, but a mediocre GPA is hard to overcome.)

  6. Patrick says:

    I think they do matter from a recruiting perspective at jobs. I am a mid to senior level environmental engineer at a consulting firm, and I get about 30 resumes within a couple days of any job posting. I do only a very brief scan of most of them, and the last of a 3.0 GPA without work experience – equals no further look. You certainly need one or the other even for an entry level job. That level of review generally gets me down to 5-10 resumes that I look closer at.

    But then again, I worked my butt off for good grades in college and tend to think that you need to have tried hard as well to deserve to work at our firm. Some others may not feel the same way.

    • mpowell says:

      I don’t think ‘deserve’ is the right standard for hiring. I just want people who will be good. But a 3.0 GPA is a pretty substantial red flag for that standard as well!

  7. Just to clarify — I don’t think you should ignore grades, just that you shouldn’t put too much focus on them. Sure, don’t wind up with Cs and Ds when you could be making As and Bs. But maximizing GPA is the wrong way to go about college, IMO, for most people, and I’ve definitely encountered plenty of students who appear to have that goal. Yes, keep your grades in the general range that you should be getting, but beyond that isn’t going to matter for most things whether you wind up getting grades at the top of that range.

    • L2P says:

      I think you’re putting a LOT of stress on the difference between “top of that range” and “in the general range.” If you mean that it doesn’t matter that much if you have a 4.0 v. a 3.75 or maybe a 3.5, then of course it doesn’t – if you have a ton of other cool stuff in your background. If you mean it doesn’t matter if you have a 3.7 or a 2.8, then no, that makes a huge difference.

      I think you’re doing a real disservice to a lot of students who are going to have to work their tails off to get a 3.5, though, and are going to hear “in that range” as meaning “eh, I got a 2.5 at U of Iowa, I should be able to get into the Harvard school of public policy.”

      • John says:

        I think you’re doing a real disservice to a lot of students who are going to have to work their tails off to get a 3.5, though, and are going to hear “in that range” as meaning “eh, I got a 2.5 at U of Iowa, I should be able to get into the Harvard school of public policy.”

        Are these students made out of straw?

  8. wengler says:

    I remember getting a B on a paper in a political economy class because I disagreed with the prof’s strongly held free trade views.

    After that I vowed never to take a class with any variation of the word ‘econ’ in it. A whole bloc of academia compromised by ideology.

    • Tedd says:

      Um, you decided to write off an entire academic discipline because one professor gave you a B on a paper instead of an A? I’m sorry, but if that is so then you sound like an insecure and closed-minded moron.

    • Jeremy says:

      I would think the “political” part of the title would be more problematic. That or the fact that professors are people too, meaning some of them can be jerks.

    • Chris G says:

      How do you know you got the B because of the disagreement, and not because of the content or the paper, caliber of your writing, and other factors?

      • Chris G says:

        For instance, imagine that you intended to write “of” but typed “or” and didn’t realize it?

      • wengler says:

        It was a good paper.

        If it comes off that I got an A on every paper, I didn’t mean it to, because I didn’t. But I had a pretty good idea about what caliber of work I was producing, and I spent a lot of time with this one.

  9. Anderson says:

    Fairly or not, poor undergraduate grades suggest to the admissions committee that the candidate is lazy, unfocused, and unserious about the academic project.

    That was certainly the case with me; I had high enough GRE scores (and good enough writing skills) to fake the schools out, but the grades were certainly a better predictor. Suckers!

  10. Joshua says:

    When I was in college, it was sort of common knowledge that, yea, umm, grades aren’t that important in the end. Maybe it was because it was a “good” job market (early 2000′s) or what not.

    Then I left and realized this was not correct. Fact is that a high (3.5+) GPA opens a lot of doors even in the private market. It could mean tens of thousands of dollars in starting salary.

    Now, I didn’t get a high GPA because I wasn’t smart enough to keep up in my major and department. But, really, undergrads who are actually there to further their career should be focusing on their grades first and foremost.

    College debauchery is great and all but it really should be avoided by anyone who isn’t a scion of the ruling class. Of course, nobody will take that advice, nor would I have upon entering school.

    • Jeremy says:

      My university had the same conventional wisdom about grades not mattering, and I’m sure it hurt a lot of people.

      But debauchery has a time and place, and it’s possible to be a good student and still go streaking through the dorm once a month or so.

  11. Chris says:

    In my experience, a few C’s is only a problem if you want to go to a top notch grad program (in your field). For a top notch program in psychology, for example, you don’t want any C’s. For a second tier program, a C or two is OK. For third tier, a smattering of C’s will probably not hurt you. Of course, the one major caveat is that you’d better not get C’s in certain courses regardless of the level of grad program you’re looking at. In psychology, if you want to go to grad school and you get a C in statistics, you’d better retake the course or start taking a look at philosophy programs (I kid, philosophy people).

    GRE scores are important, too, though. And non-clinical programs generally couldn’t care less about your work experience unless it is in a research lab (preferably at in a psych department at a university), and then they still don’t care all that much. Letters of recommendation are given different weights by different committee members, but most I’ve known all but ignore them, since no one really gets bad letters.

    • Malaclypse says:

      For third tier, a smattering of C’s will probably not hurt you.

      I would assume that getting admitted to a third tier psych school would cause more long-term damage than getting rejected.

      I don’t say that as snark, but simply as an observation that I don’t picture that the psych job market is any better than it was when I washed out of academia.

      • Chris says:

        Was in Marge who said that Bart shouldn’t make fun of grad students, they just made a horrible career choice? Multiply that by 3, I suppose.

  12. ploeg says:

    When somebody has a position to fill, that somebody naturally has an interest in selecting out the noncontenders (particularly if you have x positions and 4x, 40x, or 400x applicants). If the position is academic in nature, it would be surprising if you didn’t use academic performance as one of the selection criteria. If the position is nonacademic, but education is all that you have on your resume, grades are important, but might be overlooked if you have education in key areas of interest (Java programming, for example). If you acquire practical job experience while in college (a co-op position, for example), that can trump grades for a nonacademic position, particularly if the experience is in something cutting edge (like, for example, blogging). And after you get two or three years of experience in a vocation, nobody pays attention to education (except, of course, if you falsify your resume).

  13. j.e.b. says:

    For those who are interested in grad school, but have poor undergrad GPAs, the trick is to launder your transcript by getting an M.A./M.S. at a reasonably good school (in your field) that doesn’t have a Ph.D. program. These are often more willing to take a chance on people with poor GPAs but good GREs.

    Your undergrad GPA means a lot less when you apply to a Ph.D. program with a grad-level GPA (it better be a 4.0, though) and demonstrated grad-level work (your thesis) to hide-behind.

    • Mitch says:

      You’re saying that a Ph.D. program would overlook lower undergraduate grades if grades in a master’s program are a 4.0?

      So graduate school grading is easier than undergraduate, or is the competition is higher or is there more grade inflation?

      I’m only curious because it seems counter intuitive.

      • Vance Maverick says:

        In my field (computer science), grad school grading was definitely easier. My impression was that this was because (a) the faculty had better sources of information about us than our grades, and (b) the real work of grad school was not in the classes per se.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          Really? I’ve not seen that (granted, I’ve only really seen 2 schools; but one in the US and one in the UK). Certainly, we have differentl expectation of the amount of work required for undergrad and MSc. My 3rd year exam is rather shorter than my MSc exam for roughly the same area. For the 3rd year we have 3-4 rather lightweight bits of coursework, whereas for the MSc variant, they have 5 weeks of fairly heavy duty coursework, including writing and reasonably complex programming.

          • Vance Maverick says:

            Yes, really, but my experience is narrow (Berkeley). I took an undergraduate signal-processing course once, and it was much more work.

            We may be talking past each other a bit, though. The big exams in grad school were plenty demanding. It’s the coursework — what one instructor makes you do in the course of one semester for one grade — that was clearly easier.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              Yeah, that’s definitely reversed everywhere I’ve been. At University of Maryland College Park, we had joint MS/PhD courses and we worked the PhD students much harder. At Manchester, I, at least, give a hell of a lot more coursework at the MSc level.

          • Chris says:

            I don’t know much about masters programs, but in PhD programs a C is essentially failing, so gpa’s of graduates tend to be higher, because the people who would have had lower gpa’s get their walking papers.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              There was something slightly different at Maryland CS: In order to progress you needed a certain number of courses with As and with Bs. I think you could do worse in other classes up to some limit.

              The intent, I gather, is to let people take a few more risks with classes.

          • JL says:

            Yeah, I’m going to second Vance Maverick here. I knew people, many people, at MIT, particularly in the EECS department, who took grad classes as undergrads primarily to boost their GPA.

            The work wasn’t easier. The work was harder and more time-consuming. But the professors were more lenient. There was the general feeling that if you weren’t completely lazy and incompetent you’d get at least a B, which was assuredly not the case in many undergrad classes.

            Of course, at MIT, if you’re an undergrad, it is quite possible to fail out and even more possible to end up on academic probation at some point (I think something like 10-15% of the EECS undergrads every year spend at least a semester on academic probation, and rates are similar in many other departments). Academic probation means that you either failed to get at least a C average in the previous semester, you failed to complete and pass at least three classes in the previous semester, or you’re significantly behind on your graduation requirements.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              Interesting. I do think it’s the case that if an undergrad (emphasis for irony :)) is functioning reasonably well in a PhD class then that merits a higher mark.

              If the work, itself, is harder and more time consuming, then presumably not being “completely lazy and incompetent” requires a higher level of effort and competence? And thus be more comparable to an undergrad class B?

              In my Philosophy program, a high mark (A equiv) generally only happened if the paper was deemed near publishable. (Or so it was said.)

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        The idea is that the MSc program is harder and thus counters the negative evidence of your undergrad grades. You’re trying to sell the “I was a screw up in undergrad, albeit v. bright, but I’ve turned it around.”

        That’s pretty much always the sell, and having direct evidence of that fact is the best way to sell it.

        • cooperstreet says:

          ‘You’re trying to sell the “I was a screw up in undergrad, albeit v. bright, but I’ve turned it around.”

          I did this. I botched my undergrad up, got into a ‘cash cow’ ma program at a nearby state school, did exceptionally well, and now am in a more professionally oriented ma program at an elite school. Im in my late 20s, and I dont think the most recent program gave a shit that I got a couple d’s in college when I was 18 years old.

      • DocAmazing says:

        Actually, it’s more common than you’d think, because students a) concentrate on one field of study instead of spending time on breadth requirements, allowing for greater concentration on the subject at hand; b) got over their partying tendencies and mature into the role of serious students; c) utilize the material that they learned as upper-division undergraduates that may be revisited as graduates–so the material is familiar.

        • Mitch says:

          Interesting.

          Maybe it’s different in more academic fields compared to professional ones.

          I’m in a fairly prestigious MBA program and my experience is that professors curve heavily at the bottom of the scale and not at the top. So it’s very difficult to get an A (about the top 10-15% of class) and almost impossible to get lower than a B- or even a B.

          So there is grade inflation but a 4.0 would be extremely difficult.

          • djw says:

            Yeah, most academic fields don’t work like that. With moderate variation between faculty members, in our PhD program, the standard grade was roughly an A-, A’s were given with moderate frequency, and a B+ was strong negative signal.

            • JL says:

              In my grad program (computer science at a school with a CS program ranked roughly #60), an MS or PhD student with at least a 3.5 qualifies for the CS honor society, and you need a 3.0 for good standing. I took a class last semester (machine learning) where the class average was a B-.

              This is one of those things that varies a lot by discipline and program. I’ve heard plenty of stories from the if-it’s-not-an-A-you-screwed-up crowd, and I certainly believe them about the standards in their own programs, but it doesn’t work that way in mine.

          • L2P says:

            Professional programs work differently and signal very differently. Employers at top firms want to know some combination of the following:

            1. “Did applicant X finish in the top 20% at Harvard (or other top 20 school)?”

            2. “Did applicant X go to Harvard (or other top 20 school) and not fail miserably?”

            3. “Did applicant X finish in the top 20% (or top 20) at any other school?”

            4. “Did applicant X finish reasonably well at any other school?”

            That’s why the curve is different. The first three questions weed you out for the top firms. The second two tell you if a mid-level firm will take you (depending on the school) or if you’re scrambling.

        • DrDick says:

          I have seen a fair bit of that, though a lot of undergrad low achievers wash out of masters programs as well.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            That’s it. There are always exceptions. I’ve had a somewhat checkered career (although my grades were quite good) and the checkered bits are not a win for me, but something to overcome.

            I helped a quite brilliant student (research wise) who had randomly poor grades (though in things like stats…and he wanted to do machine learning) get into a PhD program. But he had impressive publication and even then, with the elaborate recommendations I and others wrote, it was touch and go. And for good reason. (He was accepted.)

            Relatively poor grades won’t destroy your life; perfect grades won’t save it; however, it’s a high risk strategy to neglect them, and, all other things being equal, busting a bit to make them somewhat higher is usually reasonable, esp. if you also learn more in doing so. Sacrificing everything for the grade is typically, and obviously, not the best move.

  14. Dave says:

    Grad school ruined the lives of everyone I know, mine included. Just say no.

  15. latinist says:

    I don’t know how typical this is, but I know someone who was told not to bother applying to an education program because her GPA (from college about 8 years previous) was below their official minimum. As I understand it, at least some of their funding depended on only admitting students with an X GPA or higher. So grades can matter, and they can matter even if you spend several years in a field where they don’t matter, and then change your mind.

    • Robert Farley says:

      We have to apply for a university waiver for GPAs below a certain standard. We’ve done it in the past, but only for candidates who seem genuinely exceptional in other metrics.

    • Halloween Jack says:

      Well, if she waits long enough, they may not matter, but only because she’d have to retake some of her undergraduate courses. I graduated about a quarter of a century ago, and if I wanted to apply to graduate school in my undergrad major, I’d probably have to retake all the classes in that major.

      • seeker6079 says:

        Which is BS and pure revenue generation for the school. If it were up to the universities our degrees would all have expiry dates like milk, mandating regular repurchase.

  16. Bijan Parsia says:

    I got the worst grade of my whole college career in Theda Skocpol’s class on American social policy, and that’s never stopped me from writing about American social policy—nobody’s ever asked or cared whether professors liked my essays.

    Has anything ever stopped Yglesias from writing about whatever he wants to?

    Ok, that’s came out potentially snarkier than intended. But I’m unclear if he has any real filters on his blog posts, at least. Or rather, he is established, and once you are established, it’s the fact of your establishment that matters, not so much what happened before. (This is really a variant of the “make up for your crap undergrad with a good MSc” tactic.)

    I don’t know why he thinks that specific example shows anything. If you got a crap grad in first year Calc, it’s still your advanced number theory course that you aced which will weigh more heavily in grad admission committee minds.

    • ploeg says:

      Yglesias is a poster kid for learning a trade in college and using that to build a career. He’s obviously a smart guy and did well in school. That’s not how he made his bones, though; he made his bones by getting into political blogging when it was relatively new, gaining a following, and discovering that he could make a living out of doing that. I don’t think that anybody else like him could do the same thing now and do similarly well, now that blogging has matured somewhat. Fortunately, there’s always another new thing coming along, and if you can catch it at the right time, you can parley that into a career.

      Many years ago, the English department at my alma mater sponsored the first Mac lab on campus. The place was staffed by English majors (being in the right place at the right time). When they graduated, most of them took sysadmin jobs solely on the basis of their years of experience administering the network in the Mac lab.

      • strategichamlet says:

        MY is what you say, but he is also inhumanly prolific. It seems like he’s averaged a blog post every 40min since 2004. An awful lot of high potential bloggers have failed simply because they couldn’t deliver enough material consistently to hold and build their audience (part of why almost all successful blogs these days are group blogs).

      • Halloween Jack says:

        Heh. One of the jobs that I’d applied for right after I graduated was at a company which was an early adopter of Macs, and I knew enough about them that I should have gotten the job… but the guy doing the interviewing was a former MFA student in creative writing, and I’d been in a class with him, and, as he dutifully went through the interview questions, I remembered what I’d said about his stories in class, with a certain sinking feeling.

  17. muntz says:

    Well, it took me 7 years to get thru college and my transcript was littered with Fs and Incompletes. Yet, I got into what is arguably the best business school in America by having outstanding GMAT, a terrific interview and spectacular essays. Also, I had work experience that seemed interesting. And – they gave me a grant covering ~1/2 of my tuition. So – OF COURSE good grades are better than poor grades. BUT any good admissions committee is concerned about the whole candidate. BTW – I did very well there, and remain good friends with some profs.

    • muntz says:

      oh….and i partied my ASS off. I guess Business school doesn’t count?

    • Malaclypse says:

      Is your real name George W Bush?

      • muntz says:

        hah – i know i sound like a dbag. but no. im just your regular wall street limosine liberal. i don’t spend my days saving the world, but i vote democratic and give generously.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      You were v. lucky, I’d guess. I mean, good admission committees do do all sorts of cross checks and spot checks and try to consider outliers. But most of the time, at least in my experience, the outliers stay that way.

      The real danger of this sort of advice is that it encourages people to be a bit delusional about their situation.

      • JL says:

        But the danger of the opposite advice is that it makes people feel hopeless when they need not be.

        This thread has mostly talked about GPA and GRE. Since when are those the only things that matter for getting into a grad program, especially a PhD program?

        I spent the last three years of my undergrad career with an undiagnosed illness (it got diagnosed about a year and a half later) that seriously hurt my academic abilities, and left MIT with a 2.5 (on a normal GPA scale, not the MIT one). I got a good job because I had solid research experience and an awesome previous internship and 80% of my potential employers never asked about grades. I started taking grad and undergrad classes as a non-degree student at a local school, and got As and Bs. Now I’m in a decently-ranked MS program (with about a 3.5 so far), but more importantly I have two peer-reviewed publications (with more probably coming soon), a first-author poster presentation, a handful of awards, 3.5 years of full-time research experience, and a supervisor who is a rising star in the field and is friends with some of my potential PhD advisors (I’m hoping to apply for PhD programs in the fall).

        Look, I know that getting into grad programs would have been a lot easier if I’d gotten good grades at MIT. I don’t dispute that, and I don’t encourage people to be delusional. But I’ve worked my way back up, and I think telling people that low undergrad grades will doom them forever, whatever else they do, also sends the wrong message. Maybe this is a field-by-field thing, and humanities and social sciences programs really do work like that, I don’t know. But I definitely have friends who had below a 3.0 undergrad GPA at MIT, or who actually failed out and then came back, who are now at (or have successfully completed) prestigious PhD programs in their fields.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          I don’t think anyone was saying that you can’t work you way back up. I certainly did.

          I do try to tell folks this when I think it’s reasonable. (See my story earlier about helping a test-challenged but brilliant undergrad.)

          It’s obviously ridiculous to say that bad undergrad (or high school) grades mean that your life is over. But the path is generally more bumpy.

  18. Mac says:

    When I graduated from college, I was thinking about applying for grad school in history. My grades weren’t bad, B range, but not what they normally looked for. But I test well. At any rate, I was basically asked to go away when they saw my GRE scores because, I suppose, they shouted “bright but lazy”. Which is a fair judgment, I have to admit.

  19. Pinko Punko says:

    Yglesias makes the mistake assuming that the metrics that pay him to blather about stuff are similar to those that would be used to grad the quality of his output.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      Isn’t that basically his point?

      • Pinko Punko says:

        No, his point is that he is assuming the existence of his job is an alternate confirmation of his quality. I would dispute that. I would also predict MY is being cute with the “worst grade of his college career.” I’d say it was either a B (poor MY) or a deserved C- for myopia and bullshitting.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          I guess he might be assuming that he’s good at what he does, but I don’t see that he says that or that his point requires it. He is definitely presuming that he’s made a successful career as a writer, which is true.

          Really, there’s a simple, banal point: It’s rarely too early to start writing and trying to write professionally, if you want to be a writer. Also, networking can really help a career.

  20. Western Dave says:

    Reading this, I’m amazed I got into top history grad program in 1991. I had a 2.9 GPA (in courses with grades) but graduated high honors via external exam (I had no grades in my major and minors junior and senior year so my real GPA was probably higher). Great GREs. Then again, I did attend a school whose unofficial motto was “anywhere else it would have been an A). At the time we were told not to worry about our low GPAs because graduate schools knew Swat gave “real grades” and adjusted accordingly. Do grad programs keep a book on undergrad programs and use multipliers to adjust for GPA, as we often heard?

    • Robert Farley says:

      Yes, although it helps when the letters of recommendation remind us of the situation. Note to letter writers…

      • redrob says:

        I heartily second this. When I applied for Ph.D. programs after a B.A. and M.A. at a Canadian university, I was lucky enough to have a prof with experience in the U.S. who explicitly stated in his letters for students that the grading system was very different at most Canadian universities. In my case, not only was a B grade 65-80%, but 90% was the unofficial maximum grade in any Social Science or Humanities course and represented a high A. Without this, my GPA would have translated as 2.3 or something –taking it into account I had a 3.5 or there about. I try to make sure that all my letters compare my students at my current junior college with students at the four years where I’ve taught.

        • seeker6079 says:

          “unofficial maximum grade”?

          I’m not an academic but isn’t that doubly nuts, both in the sense that 100% is a (the) legitimate maximum, and in the sense that is grossly unfair to operate on a marking system that somebody admitting your students has to have extra super secret unofficial knowledge just to understand it?

          I wonder how many students didn’t get into grad programs, or the ones that they could have got into, because of your institutions’ decision to operate that way.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            What makes 100% “legitimate”? The UK operates with 70% being roughly the maximum (in the sense that pretty much everything over 70% is treated the same). Obviously, doing this where not everyone is in synch involves challenges, but a legitimate way to handle that is by establishing a rep and by writing explanatory letters.

            Done right, it could be a plus rather than a minus. My guess is that it merely shifts things around the margin and redistributes goods rather than being a net negative.

            E.g., rightly or wrongly, a tough grading school is often perceived as being more rigorous and challenging, so that even when you normalize, the “effective” 3 (from 2.5) is worth more than a straight 3 from an easy grading school.

            Even better, as you develop the rep, you get special attention for your student’s application because there’s something to distinguish them. Standing out is often good in applications.

            • seeker6079 says:

              “What makes 100% “legitimate” [as a maximum]?”

              Ummmm…. mathematics? Zero being the worst you can do and 100% being the best? The beauty of that is that it matches up very nicely with how the 99.whatever% of the population who aren’t yet tenured understand “minimum” and “maximum”. If I took aside, say, an engineer in my employ and tried to tell him that I marked him on his performance evaluation by “getting ten out of ten on your performance goals means you get seven out of ten, unless you are in a different subsidiary where it means eight out of ten, unless you were also sat on three committees, then it’s an eight and half … ” the employee would, rightly, think me out of my tree.

              Consistency is nice, too, and reasonably standard baselines. From what I’ve read here and from what I’ve heard from academics of my acquaintance there doesn’t seem to be any effort at all made towards establishing coherent, comparable standards of measurement. Despite this there are thousands of academics devoting vast amounts of time to winnowing applications as if there were such standards. (It’s interesting that your answer uses “could be” and “my guess”, which are fairly scary comparative metrics. It’s interesting that Prof. Farley helpfully and candidly admits that committees often need these matters spelled out in reference letters, even though knowing this stuff is almost by definition a requirement of that duty.)

              To me it reaches comic proportions here in Canada where universities get to accept or reject credits from other universities. Seems to me as a layman that if a course isn’t good enough to be recognized by other universities then it shouldn’t be funded or taught, and if it is good enough to recognize then the transferee university shouldn’t be able to arbitrarily reject the credit (usually in gleeful anticipation of screwing the student out of the money to, in effect, take the course again).

              A bit of a rant, admittedly. But the flood of intelligent comments here basically boil down to one macro point: there are no as-close-to-objective-as-we-can-get-them standards. More worrisome, academia tends to perversely prize this confused mess of varying standards.

              Let’s face it: if you are making life-altering judgments based on arbitrary, changing, uncertain, culturally based and biased, obscure and often paradoxical requirements then you aren’t professionals, you’re theologians.

              • mark f says:

                If I took aside, say, an engineer in my employ and tried to tell him that I marked him on his performance evaluation by “getting ten out of ten on your performance goals means you get seven out of ten, unless you are in a different subsidiary where it means eight out of ten, unless you were also sat on three committees, then it’s an eight and half … ” the employee would, rightly, think me out of my tree.

                Actually,that’s remarkably similar to the annual performance evaluations at my job.

              • seeker6079 says:

                “Actually,that’s remarkably similar to the annual performance evaluations at my job.”

                Which makes your boss an idiot. ;) Glad we cleared that up.

              • mark f says:

                Are you kidding? It means he hardly has to give out any money in raises. Tell someone he’s a 5 (the top of the scale) but he’s only getting a 2% increase and you’ll have unmanageable turnover. Tell him he’s 3 but with such-and-such further effort he just might rate higher next year and management’s got free increased productivity.

                I bet my boss got awesome grades in business school.

              • seeker6079 says:

                Okay, then, strike “idiot” and replace with “manipulative swine”. And given that we are discussing how we admit people to postgraduate programs aren’t you and I — in having this discussion — impliedly admitting that the standards used by the schools and judged by the committes are idiotic or swinish?

              • mark f says:

                That’s too broad for me to get on board with. But I recently listened to a class via the Yale Open Courses site. This particular professor had a reputation for being a tough grader that he felt was worth discussing in the first session. He did say that while he may be more stingy with top grades than other professors, receiving an A in his class didn’t mean that the student was the world’s greatest philosopher.

                I do agree that just as many students want to insist that passing a paper in on time is ipso facto B work at a minimum, some professors of a certain mindset feel that top marks should be reserved only for students doing PhD-level writing. I had one professor who insisted that there should be no such thing as an A in a survey course, and to my knowledge he didn’t award any. But he was a special kind of douche.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                Ummmm…. mathematics? Zero being the worst you can do and 100% being the best?

                Math really doesn’t tell you this any more than it tells you 4.0 is a maximum.

                In the US, the usual 100 pt scale often runs from 50-100 (for final grades, although lower than 50 can be used inside a course…a kind of negative mark) and corresponds to 0.0-4.0. (Or sometimes 5.0 :))

                They’re just scales with arbitrarily chosen units and ranges, subject to decentralized forces. Computation and comparison is easier when everyone uses the same one consistently, but normal variance can be dealt with. Sometimes there’s odd advantages to being a little odd. This is all rather banal, yes?

                (It’s interesting that your answer uses “could be” and “my guess”, which are fairly scary comparative metrics

                I’m confused. Those are metrics, much less comparative ones. They are markers of my epistemic confidence. I don’t have access at the moment to any rigorous study of the effect of being the harsh grader in a see of more lenient schools, I don’t know which school was meant anyway, and I doubt it’s my field. But then again, I’m pretty sure that’s true of you too, though you marked your accusations of harm with far greater confidence that I can see they warrant.

                Generally, admission committees are trying to allocate a scares resource in a way that is optimal for the institution, subject to certain fairness (and other) constraints, in conditions of great uncertainty. (For example, you don’t necessarily want to make offers to only the “best” candidates since they will almost certainly get offers from other good schools and make pick them over you for all sorts of reason. If they delay their choice too long, then your next round of picks might have already picked so you end up with your third round.)

                Given that there is no precise measurements to be had, and even the set of variables is highly variable, it’s unlikely that there even IS a total order on candidates, much less one discernable for reasonable cost. So, you are dealing with rough measures and thresholds, plus some what subjective notions of fit. If you are a reasonably attractive program, then (one hopes) you’ll have more acceptable or even awesome candidates than you have slots and most subsets of those candidates form a good intake. It’s neither arbitrary nor wrong to take such a class.

                And this is surprising or distressing…why? It’s just like hiring.

                It’s interesting that Prof. Farley helpfully and candidly admits that committees often need these matters spelled out in reference letters, even though knowing this stuff is almost by definition a requirement of that duty.)

                Similarly, a candidate who comes from a hard grading school would be very wise to emphasize that fact simply because it’s not a duty of the school to put arbitrary resources into admission. Anything you can do to smooth the way, emphasize your good points, etc. is quite wise. Similarly, mere typos might not be a great reason to sink an application, but I still don’t recommend not proofreading your application.

                Soooooo, I’m confused. This is all universal practice, and not just in academia. You could put in purely “objective” standards (e.g., standardized test scores), but it’s not clear that they produce overall better outcomes (even putting aside the difficulty in developing sane or reasonably unbiased metrics).

            • seeker6079 says:

              “Develop the rep” concerns me too. “Rep” is valuable, no doubt. Nobody would argue that, say, a Stanford education is inferior to, say, Baylor. But it’s something we should keep an eagle eye on because it’s a recipe for laziness in committees and class and cultural rigidity in the culture at large.

              To take a large example, look at SCOTUS: right now it is a private club for graduates of two law schools, Harvard (6) and Yale (3). That’s it, and that’s “rep”.

              To take a small example: can anybody here honestly argue that if exactly the same Ross Douthat hadn’t gone from Hamden Hall to Harvard that he would have fallen into the Atlantic and NYT the way that he did? Nonsense. That’s rep, too. And, given how difficult it is for the man to make a coherent argument that isn’t easily demolished it’s also a disgrace.

              • Anonymous says:

                Why do you say “Harvard (6)and Yale (3)?” Yale and Harvard are ranked 1 and 2 by Newsweek if you’re referring to the law school rankings most people use.

              • mark f says:

                The number of current Supreme Court justices from each.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                Well, I don’t mean rep as in what Newsweek reports, I mean rep as in perception by peers of the kind of program you run and the sort of graduates you produce. Unless we have a fixed international curriculum, then we’re going to have to compare different courses with different emphases. Programs market their output (graduates) to other programs (graduate schools) and you’d like to have a good brand (rep). Of course, you want that brand’s goodness to be based on reality, i.e., a good output. If you have a rep as tough graders but your students are unversed in fundamentals, then you’ll get a rep as having a bad program and trying to cover it up.

                I honestly don’t know why you’re bent out of shape. Some people turn out to be hacks in spite of going to a good school?

                (Some things have shown enormous improvement, e.g., discrimination. Of course, as it gets less blatant it gets harder to combat.)

              • seeker6079 says:

                BP, I don’t know why you think I’m “bent out of shape” about this, but never mind.

                What I’m trying to get across are these points:
                * there is a point where “rep” moves from the positive elements that you detail to the negative of just being a default assumption not just of merit, and even not just of superiority, but to automatic assumption of superiority over all other options in all other circumstances [which is why the SCOTUS example is so pertinent];
                * why is it so Shocking(!) that schools should move towards a more uniform method of marking and evaluation instead of the dog’s breakfast of unpredictability detailed in this thread? Really, why is that so difficult or frightening or unacceptable?

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                BP, I don’t know why you think I’m “bent out of shape” about this

                Well, your tone and arguments don’t exude calm.

                there is a point where “rep” moves from the positive elements that you detail to the negative of just being a default assumption not just of merit, and even not just of superiority, but to automatic assumption of superiority over all other options in all other circumstances [which is why the SCOTUS example is so pertinent];

                Granted, and never in dispute. You’re the one who presumed that a tough grading school was ispo facto harming its students. When I pointed out that that rep might help some students, you decided to go all cautionary tale on reps. The only commonality is to say something bad about how admissions function in sweeping terms (oh, and to tie it to academia in particular).

                why is it so Shocking(!) that schools should move towards a more uniform method of marking and evaluation instead of the dog’s breakfast of unpredictability detailed in this thread? Really, why is that so difficult or frightening or unacceptable?

                I don’t think I expressed fright or unacceptibility at moving toward more uniform blah blah. This is why we have certification, and standardized testing, etc. etc. But they aren’t a panacea and it’s not clear that putting an all out effort into them will result in systematically better outcomes for reasonable cost (or even reduced cost).

                I think the burden of proof is on you to show a problem, and then propose some move that is reasonably improving. Neither your specific examples, nor your strange readings of what people like me have written remotely approaches provocative, much less convincing. (Things like your pouncing on my epistemic markers or Rob’s sage advice as if they were telling of some deep issue, or the amusing “mathematics” of 100%, tend to make your view less plausible, rather than more so.)

                I’m all for making things fairer and, well, better. I’d love it if there were a reasonably well grounded scheme that would let me reliably predict which PhD applicants would complete and subsequently do well. But there ain’t a magic wand there, so I settle for my best judgement plus key fairness constraints plus key institutional/discipline goals. I’m wary of things like over reliance on standardized test for all the standard reasons (see No Child Left Untested). Similarly, a universal, uniform college curriculum is both a non-starter and a bad idea (univerisities shouldn’t be monocultures).

                All this is pretty mundane stuff.

        • seeker6079 says:

          “Granted, and never in dispute. You’re the one who presumed that a tough grading school was ispo facto harming its students. When I pointed out that that rep might help some students..”

          It’s interesting that you would equate “rep” with tough grading schools. I haven’t seen any data presented here which makes such a direct correlation. Quite the contrary: it has been noted that the people who are supposed to know these things often don’t and comment has been offered that they can’t be expected to know these things, which is astonishing. (I’m trying to imagine the reaction of the judge if I took the position that I wasn’t obliged to know the law of the case that I’m arguing.)

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Interesting that you would claim that I equated “rep” with tough grading schools. A reasonable reader would understand that I was talking about it as a component (in general, even if some particular schools rep consisted solely of being tough graders and even if, for current discussion, we can proxy rep with tough grading).

            Second, the point is that being tough graders can be part of a reasonable strategy, not just a millstone around student’s necks as you presumed. It is a strategy with risks. If you just grade harshly and don’t follow through, then it’s clearly bad. I’m sorry you can’t hold such considerations in your mind at once, but it will help your understanding to try to do so.

            Third, while I understand point scoring in the service of castigation is an important conversational imperative for you, it really works better if you actually score a point, rather than merely claiming to do so. “Make sure the generally most heavily weighted and scruitized part of your application, the letters, makes your best case and reinforces any points that could possibly get lost” is perfectly banal and sensible advice. In terms of your increasingly hilarious “analogies” (I scare quote them since their function seems to be to establish authority rather than actually successfully analogize), I would think that the judge expects you to make all the relevant legal points in your presentation, even if you can reasonably expect the judge to know them.

            As it’s clear that you are either trolling or hopeless, I now cede you the internets.

  21. Shinobi says:

    I spent my entire adolescence being told I needed to work harder to get into a good school, ditto college to get a good job. None of this turned out to be true.

    And even if it had, I would have spent years working hard being miserable so that I could spend MORE years working hard being miserable.

    Getting good grades, going to grad school, none of this is a guarantee of having work you actually give two shits about.

    The real value we get from our education is the knowledge we gain from it. My 2.9 may not be impressive, but it is also not proof that I stayed up all night memorizing things the night before and then immediately forgetting them. (It is also not evidence of my ability to cheat.)

    Knowledge is power, grades are just bullshit that make academics and people who can memorize and regurgitate stuff feel like their wasted hours are worth something.

    • Shinobi says:

      Academic committees who see students with low GREs and high grades should be asking themselves “how much did this student cheat?”

      And I understand that their is some crap about being bad at taking tests. The fact is that you still take tests in class, if you are bad at taking tests, how would you have a 4.0?

  22. [...] even considering law school because he knew (1) that I never really cared much about grades — cue Robert Farley — and that (2) law school wasn’t practically consistent with my goal of [...]

  23. Anonymous says:

    Out of Curiousity how much does a truly dramatic grade trend change things- because I had a truly atrocious first 3 semesters- was hit by a car and then basically turned my life around and will likely graduate with a 3.1ish GPA and good-to-great test scores.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      It really depends. But I think it’s not far wrong to say wrt many grad schools that junior and senior year grades, in major, matter most. From what it sounds like, you have a good story (indeed, one that would tend to make you a more promising candidate; adversity overcome, etc.). I would guess that where’d you run into trouble is that you might more often than you’d like get sorted in to a low priority pile earlier than you’d like.

      So, I wouldn’t give up by any means. Just be sure to cast a reasonably wide net (a good idea no matter what) and to burnish up the rest of the app. Reference letters which explain the story are probably wise.

      This is not legal advice :)

  24. Halloween Jack says:

    I wonder how much grades really mean any more, with grade inflation being so rampant, unless a low GPA signifies that not only were you lazy and/or stupid but that you didn’t even bother to try to beg your grades up.

      • redrob says:

        I knew a prof at grad school who used to say “As far as I’m concerned, every student in this class starts with an ‘F’ and has to work each week to prove that you deserve more.” We all thought he was a bit of a dick.

        Another prof used to announce, “Everyone in this class starts out the semester with an ‘A’ as far as I’m concerned. Week by week, most of you will demonstrate that don’t deserve it. Fortunately for you, you can only fall so far in my estimation in 15 weeks.” I liked him, but that was a minority opinion.

  25. law student says:

    Another reason to take the “don’t worry about grades” advice with a grain of salt: many of the people giving it got their first “break” in a much less competitive time (which could be as little as 5-10 years ago). It’s insane how much standards have risen, for a variety of reasons, for elite school admissions, even at the high school level, never mind college and grad school and then post-grad hiring. The increase in competitiveness may not be as big in some disciplines, but it’s there as a macro-trend.

    • seeker6079 says:

      People who say “don’t worry about the grades” are generally in positions akin to rich people saying “money’s not that important”, or people with tenure talking about the importance of competition: they’re already in and not subject to the measures they are so blithe about.

  26. TheScudStud says:

    I’m still trying to figure out how I got into the University of Denver’s International Studies program with a 3.4….

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