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Do first year undergrad marks matter when applying to grad school?

  1. Dec 8, 2008 #1
    Hey all! Just made a PF account and have this question on my mind...

    So I'm going into my 2A semester in January (because I'm in co-op and so I don't have the traditional schedule), and I completely messed up my first year at University. The reason was because I had to take 3 non-math courses each of those semesters and they really made me not enjoy school. So I have some very low marks on my transcript (including a 50... which is the lowest possible pass). However, from now on, most of my semesters will consist of 5 math courses, and so I know that I will do extremely well in my remaining undergraduate years.

    However, I'm worried that my terrible first year marks will affect me when applying to a graduate math program. Is this true? Will I be at a disadvantage when applying to graduate programs now because of my first year blunder, even if I do very well in my remaining years?

    I'd like to know because this has been worrying me lately.

  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 8, 2008 #2


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    It will matter, but not much.

    It'll matter because it counts in your raw GPA which the universities will definitely look at. It won't count much because it's only one year (so you can make up for it in the GPA) and because noone's gonna care that you got a C- in calc1 if you manage to get As in calc 2 and calc 3 (or in the case of waterloo's annoyingly weird grading system, a 60 and then 90s).
  4. Dec 8, 2008 #3
    What did you take that made you hate school?

    I think you seriously hurt yourself getting on deans list.

    Your MAV (major avg) doesnt start till 2nd year, so don't worry too much.
  5. Dec 8, 2008 #4


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    Well it looks like your major GPA wasn't affected since it was only the non-math classes which brought your GPA down. So I wouldn't worry if I were you.
  6. Dec 8, 2008 #5
    It really depends on the graduate program that you are looking into. I know quite a few graduate programs in chemistry and biology related fields that only look at your GPA from your last two years of school. Other programs on the other hand have requirements that span the whole four years.
  7. Dec 8, 2008 #6


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    Beyond purely looking at GPA, if you can't be successful in any course EXCEPT math, then that would raise concerns about whether you have a particularly scholarly outlook on your studies and education. People going to grad school to earn a Ph.D. in any field are expected to be scholars, not just specialists. While a bad grade in one or two classes outside your major won't really impact much, having SIX bad classes over two semesters really doesn't bode well for showing you can handle any diversity of subject matter.
  8. Dec 8, 2008 #7
    You probably won't get into the top-tier schools any more. Sad reality. Why take you over someone who has four perfect years?

    Keep this up and all you will have left is low tier schools.
  9. Dec 8, 2008 #8


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    I think your sixth and seventh semester grades in your major are more important than your first year grades.

    If your non-major grades are dragging down your GPA,
    try taking more major-courses [i.e. advanced courses...overloaded, if necessary] and do well in them...
    and try to save the remaining non-major courses for your eighth semester.
  10. Dec 8, 2008 #9
    OK thank you for the replies everyone! I found your comments to be helpful. The message that I got from the replies was that I will probably be at a slight disadvantage but not as much as I thought. I guess I will have to make sure to try and do amazing in my remaining years if I am to make it into Waterloo for Pure or Applied math which is where I'd like to study in graduate school (which is also my current Uni).

    @ samspotting: There were two manditory CS courses that I found to be extremely frustrating and boring, and some electives that were recommended to me as "bird courses" (like Psychology) which I found to be atrocious (memorizing 400 pages of facts to straight up regurgitate on tests? Not for me and not something I enjoy doing).

    @ moonbear: Well I actually did fairly well on the businessy-type courses like Accounting (83) and Microeconomics (low 80's). The problem was the manditory CS courses and taking advice from friends on some of these "bird" electives like Psychology which ended up being not so bird at all for me. I think that if I take my remaining non-maths in further Economics/Accounting then I will be able to show graduate schools that I can do non-math so I will need to put more effort in these non-maths when I take them I guess.

    Also I will most likely be taking 10 semesters instead of 8 because I will be doing a double major in Pure Math and Applied Math and would like to do it without overloading so chances are these low marks will have a lower impact on my GPA than most people because I will be taking an extra year longer than most people.
  11. Dec 9, 2008 #10
    Yeah, the first year CS courses are brutal for people that aren't good at programming (and I use good in a strict sense here, vb coding or web programming doesn't count). I was one of the few people that I know that didn't fail or drop out of the CS 135-136 stream.

    I think I am in the same stream as you, as I just finished first year and am on coop right now. I am also going into pure math, but with combinatorics second major. I am wondering why you want to go to waterloo for grad school. Also, are you in advanced math?
  12. Dec 9, 2008 #11
    Actually this is not true. Great research and letters of recommendation will offset poor grades in the first year, even at top-10 programs.

    But yeah you still gotta clean up your act and get good grades in the next 3 years though.
  13. Dec 9, 2008 #12


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    well I went to harvard undergrad and the first three semesters did so poorly i was required to withdraw for a year (roughly D average). the i re entered and quickly began to improve, with an A+ in ode 2nd semester sophomore year, then re - entered the honors program with a B+ then A- in honors calc at the loomis sternberg level junior year, a B+ in abstract algebra, then took graduate real analysis and got an A senior year.

    In spite of what might seem reasonable, the math programs I applied to seemed not to care a whit about anything other than my math grades, and these were deemed good enough to get me into Brandeis grad school, where I was actually one of the better students. think about it, i was applying from harvard where i had demonstrated the ability to earn an A in a course mostly populated by harvard grad students. what's not to like?

    In fact several years later, my performance at Brandeis, where I did not finish, was recalled well enough to get me a special recommendation to Utah where I did finish in fact as the presidential fellow in math. do you think my former professor from brandeis who knew my performance personally, gave a toot about what grade i got from garrett birkhoff 5 years before i took his own class?

    The point of this is, there is no cut and dried formula for determining who gets in. We just want to find out how good you are and how good you can be, and are likely to become. A few bad grades mean nothing if they are eradicated by subsequent fine performance.

    Embarrassing as it may be, we do not care about your scores in any other subject at all, since math grades are all that matter essentially in a grad program in math. thats why we have people who score 400 in verbal gre, and 800 in quantitative gre - of course they are mostly foreigners. mathematicians are not required to be scholars in any other sense if they can really do math. we tolerate one dimensional geeks just fine if they are good enough.

    so we do not rule you off the turf for any reason that does not really matter in the long run. but bad records in anything have to be made up for in some way, improvement in that same area, or something.

    and another thing: notice i did not go to a famous ivy league school for my phd but have done pretty well in my math career. the point is to find a school where you can flourish, and do so. it will be noticed.

    I can recognize a good student by talking to him/her for five minutes. if they impress me that way, grades are a lesser concern. I have recruited some of the best people by simply conversing with them for a few minutes, or hearing them speak once for a half hour.

    recall my calc professor was about to throw me out of his office when suddenly i offered to prove cantor's theorem that the reals are more numerous than the rationals, and said how. immediately he put me in the class i wanted.

    even the NSF official brochure on how to evaluate researchers says the main criterion is how they impress you when you talk to them. So practice giving talks, and talking to other strong people. if you learn to interview well, you will benefit from it.
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2008
  14. Dec 12, 2008 #13
    @ samspotting: Haha, wow, I think we ARE in the same stream because I'm just going into my 2A semester this January! The PM/C&O double major sounds pretty awesome, are you planning on doing it all in 8 semesters?

    The reason that I am interested in Waterloo grad program is because I want somewhere that's relatively close to home (I live in Hamilton about an hour away, although I live at Waterloo when I'm in school), and also since I will be going there for 5 years, chances are I will know most of the profs by my upper years. Of course, my mind may change in the next 5 years but right now I my mind is set on Waterloo. And no unfortunately I'm not in advanced math (my biggest regret EVER), are you? :O

    Mathwonk: Wow, that's a pretty crazy story! That's awesome how you went from D's in first year to taking graduate courses in 4th year! :O That gives me alot of hope for the future though, since even though I messed up first year, I'm hoping to completely dominate my remaining years just like you did. :P
  15. Dec 15, 2008 #14
    I am going into advanced from honours, I will def be able to handle lin alg, but not so sure about advanced calc 3. Lin alg is fairly straight forward for advanced, just more proofs based and less computation. Learning it using the advanced book, I would say its actually easier. Unfotunately adv calc 3 is real analysis, and it is much much harder than calc 3. I studied a few books, I will see if I can make it in the winter. The biggest challenge is how to cram that material into what little time i have lol.

    I am regretting not going into it as well, but from what I see of the course notes its not that much more intense. Just a lot more proofs based. I just decided this work term to switch to pure math, we can def catch up to those weird people in pure math with a semester or two of hard work.
  16. Dec 16, 2008 #15
    It depends a lot on the profs, but I just finished math 245/7/9 this term, and linear algebra 2 was by far the hardest of any of the advanced courses. There was a certain amount of material covered that wasn't in the textbook, and a huge amount of material covered overall.
  17. Dec 16, 2008 #16
    Hmm, you might be able to really help me.

    What I am doing for prep is doing Linear Algebra by friedberg, insel, spence chapters 1-3 and 6.1-6.3. Will that be good?

    For advanced calc 3, I am using baby rudin, but will only prob get up to derivatives done. I will cover the real (R^n) and complex number systems, basic topology, sequences, continuity, and derivatives. There is a chapter on integrals that I don't have time to go through, it will prob take me a few weeks of the semester to do it. I am pretty worried about this, how much does adv calc 3 depend on the previous ones.

    Is that adequate preparation?
  18. Dec 16, 2008 #17
    Hm, I suppose it really depends on how you define 'prepared'...I didn't do any prior reading before taking the course; it's hard to say how much it would've helped in retrospect.
    For linear algebra, pretty much everything in the text that wasn't covered in 146 is covered, as well as some material that's not in the text at all. Here's a rough list of the topics off the top of my head:
    -Quotient Spaces, Direct Sums, Dual Spaces
    -Tensor Products
    -Symmetric and Exterior algebras
    -Caley-Hamilton theorem and invariant subspaces
    -Primary Decomposition Theorem
    -Jordan Canonical Form/Rational Canonical Form
    -Theorems about Normal/Self-Adjoint/Orthogonal operators and their complex counterparts
    -Quadratic and Symmetric Bilinear Forms

    I have no idea what's covered in 136 compared to 146, but you'd definitely need to be very familiar with everything in chapters 1-3 and 6.1,6.2. Other than that, it couldn't hurt to look at chapters 4 and 5 beforehand to get a feel for some of the material.

    As for math 247, it's basically an intro to multivariable differential calculus in R^n; don't worry about complex analysis or integration...those topics have their own courses in 3rd year pmath. The first 3-4 weeks is the general topology of R^n, which is very straightforward; lots of definitions and basic theorems, but not many challenging problems. Most of the rest of the course consists of generalizing theorems from the one-dimensional setting, so things like
    the extreme value theorem, taylor's theorem, mean value theorem, inverse function theorem, and the various theorems about continuity and limits, e.g. the Cauchy criterion. If you haven't taken 147, it could be quite challenging if you're seeing rigourous formulations and proofs of these theorems for the first time; again, i have no idea what the differences are between the advanced and regular section courses. There's a fair amount on optimization problems in the multivariable setting, but i don't think it helps much to have taken previous advanced math classes for that. The course ends with a week or two on integration in R^n; so it's just straightforward generalization of 1-dimensional integration theory, plus some theorems to deal with iterated integrals, fubini's theorem, change of variables, etc.

    Rudin is a good book from what I understand...the text for the course is Wade's intro to real analysis, which is fairly terse, but has good problem sets and is quite comprehensive. To get a good feel for the style and theorems in 147, a great book is Spivak...it has lots of good problems. =)

    Don't worry too too much about calc 3...I know some people who entered it out of 138, and they did fine. Linear algebra on the other hand was quite difficult, though again, it depends quite a lot on the prof. Our class finished with less than 15 people, down from something like 30 at the beginning of the term.
  19. Mar 1, 2009 #18
    holy crap, I am in the courses now and while im owning adv calc and combinatorics, i got 56% on the adv lin alg 2 midterm...

    Its gonna be a rough ride, do they bell curve? It seems people are really smart though in adv lin alg because the avg mark was 70%. Posting this on the off chance you see it.
  20. Mar 1, 2009 #19

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    Well, I can see at least part of why you are struggling. It's a bad habit not to be writing in standard English, even when you can get away with it. Yes, eventually people can decipher the gibberish you posted, but sloppy writing encourages sloppy thinking, and avoiding sloppy thinking is critical if you want to do mathematics.
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