Low GPA, but have had sickness through college

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Joined: Sun May 24, 2015 8:36 pm

Low GPA, but have had sickness through college

Post by erin-cfs » Sun May 24, 2015 8:54 pm

Hi everyone! I've looked through so many useful threads, but thought I'd add my situation in. I'll list out the details:

-I'm a female at a top private university for undergrad
-I'm double majoring in math and physics, also have taken many CS classes. My overall GPA is about 3.45, but my physics GPA is a 3.0 and my math GPA is a 3.2.
-I have been doing research straight through since the fall of my sophomore year (I am going to be a senior in August) in experimental condensed matter, and I'm expecting to have 1 or 2 publications done by the time I graduate, first author on both. I've already given a talk at an APS conference. I know advanced nanofabrication techniques and various forms of microscopy and spectroscopy (AFM, Raman, SEM, etc.)
- I have had a mental/physical illness through my college career (an eating disorder, which led me to near hospitalization at the start of my sophomore year and has also led to a broken hip and many medical complications), while dealing with being a first generation college student from a rather unstable familial background, and having come into college with no physics preparation.
-My grades have been on the upswing since freshman year...for the most part. I was about to clinch a much better junior year, then I pulled in a C+ in an upper level physics courses, while pulling in A's and A-'s in everything else. I feel like that C+ is the nail in the coffin.
-I'm spending my summer living in the lab, mentoring a younger female physics major, taking the general GRE next month and I'm going to spend a few months studying for the physics GRE, hard.

I'm not looking to get into a top 10 school. But I'd love to be able to go somewhere like the Colorado School of Mines or the University of Oregon. If I kick ass on the standardized tests, can I pull it off? how much should I divulge about my disease to admission boards? It explains a lot of my mediocre performance in classes, but I understand how it's a red flag as well.

I want to pursue experimental condensed matter physics and do it for as long as I can. I'm crazy passionate about it. But given my poor grades, should I not even try- and opt for something like engineering or materials science, or get a masters first? Or should I go for it with realistic tier grad school options?

Thanks for your time!

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Joined: Fri Oct 26, 2012 4:14 pm

Re: Low GPA, but have had sickness through college

Post by Catria » Mon May 25, 2015 12:18 am

If you want to try CO School of Mines or Oregon, you can also add Boston College; sure Boston College is one-dimensional as a physics department, but BC's physical strength is CME.

If you get 800+ then you can aim for WUSTL, Brown, Minnesota, Rutgers, assuming we're talking about the PGRE.

Not sure whether you should try top-20s but, like you said, top-10s are out of the question; nevertheless, if your recommenders still advise you to apply to the top-20s, and you're more interested in the nanoscience aspect of condensed matter, you should try Rice (although Rice is not *technically* a top-20 school, for nanoscience it's the same as a top-20) and Maryland, UPenn for soft condensed matter. Not sure about UCSD.

As for your sicknesses, I think it is best to have your recommender write about your sicknesses, rather than you. If given the opportunity to write addenda, then and only then you may mention your health problems by yourself.

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Re: Low GPA, but have had sickness through college

Post by TakeruK » Mon May 25, 2015 1:51 pm

Admissions are done on a holistic basis, which makes it very difficult for us strangers on the Internet to be able to assess your profile accurately, since a lot of it will depend on things we don't see here, and there aren't many reliable quantitative metrics that we can use for what we do know!

Quick note: You should seek advice of your LOR writers to determine what to divulge about your illness. Catria gave a good advice to have them write about it instead of you. Another thing I can add is that you can also choose what parts of your illness to focus on and what details to provide. I think it might be too personal to say it was an eating disorder, and even though it shouldn't be this way, the reality is that mental illnesses have a lot more stigma than physical illnesses. So, one way to frame your illness is to discuss the physical aspects only (hospitalization, but don't say what for, and the broken hip).

One way to approach this is minimums. Although you may not be interested in a top 10 and your chances may not be great, you do meet the minimums for entrance to such a program. They usually have a 3.0 GPA cutoff, but the competitive GPA is usually much higher. However, the rest of your profile is really strong:

1. You are mentoring a student (this signals that someone trusts your research and regards your ability highly, which I think will mean a very strong LOR)
2. You are going to have two first-author papers (many grad students don't get to this until their 3rd year or so of grad school)
3. You have a lot of actual research experience (being at a top school now, it might seem like a lot of other people have experience too, but the reality is that most grad school applicants have very little experience)
4. You might be able to get your LOR writer to explain the impact of your illness on your GPA, and
5. You are getting a degree from a top private university.

These five other factors, plus a high score on the PGRE, might be enough to mitigate the lower GPA (assuming you can also raise it a bit this Fall). I don't want to instill false hope, so I will say that even though there are good reasons and even though it sounds like you are an excellent researcher, the low GPA could make it very difficult to get into a top 10 program. And, I'm assuming the most optimistic possible case for the five factors above.

But, if this is what you want, then I don't think it's "out of the question". You will have to cast a very wide net when applying to programs and do a lot of legwork to determine best fit programs. However, there's no point going through all of the money and effort to apply to top programs if that's not what you want. I'm just saying that if this is your dream/goal, then don't limit yourself because your GPA is low--you might not be successful in the end, but it's worth the effort.

You definitely have the right experience and abilities to succeed in a graduate program though, top 10 or otherwise. Find the programs that interest you, consult with your advisors, and apply to them!

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Re: Low GPA, but have had sickness through college

Post by erin-cfs » Thu May 28, 2015 6:24 pm

Thank you both for the helpful responses! I've been meeting with faculty in our department here to discuss these questions as well- and the situation might not be as dire as it feels to me. Your university suggestions are very helpful. Moral of the story: be smart about the schools to which I apply, get very good grades fall semester, and study for the PGRE as much and as best as I can. To be honest, I'm looking forward to reviewing all of the physics. Thank you again!

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