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Admissions Grad Application: GPA low due to disability

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Hi everyone.

I am looking for some advice on how to go about writing grad school applications next year. My freshman year (Fall 2011) I developed a brain disorder that, while untreated, dramatically reduced my cognitive ability. I took two years off of school starting in 2013 came back in 2015. My GPA has improved steadily since my return but is still a 2.85. I am 100% sure that I want to go to graduate school for experimental AMO or condensed matter, but am not sure how to (if possible) compensate for my GPA. I am legally mentally disabled (I don't want to play that card but it shows the severity of the disorder).


Some accomplishments:
Major: Electrical Engineering & Physics
Research Assistant:
Cal Poly: Neutral Atom Quantum Computing (two years)
Stanford: Neutrino Detection (one summer)​
Research Grant Winner: Developing a Sub-$200 Scanning Tunneling Microscope (in progress)
Deans List: Fall 2017
Scholarships:
Frost Summer Research Scholarship
LSAMP Summer Research Scholarship
CAMPARE Summer Research Scholarship​

Any advice on how to frame my situation would really be appreciated.
 
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Vanadium 50

Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
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5,696
What is your GPA for the past two years?

The fundamental problem you will face is universities asking "if this person can't perform well at the undergraduate level, what will happen at the more difficult graduate level"? How do you answer that?
 

Stephen Tashi

Science Advisor
6,816
1,128
I am legally mentally disabled (I don't want to play that card but it shows the severity of the disorder).
You may as well play that card if the fact is going be revealed anyway. The mention of a brain disorder (whether the legal standing is mentioned or not) will lead to the question of whether the disorder has been treated, cured, or compensated for. Frame that answer carefully.

What contacts did you make as a research assistant? If you haven't asked them for advice about the application yet, do so.
 
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What is your GPA for the past two years?

The fundamental problem you will face is universities asking "if this person can't perform well at the undergraduate level, what will happen at the more difficult graduate level"? How do you answer that?
Since Fall Quarter 2016, my GPA is 3.34.
Upper Div EE: 3.33
Upper Div Phys: 3.50

Currently, my plan to address that question is to spend a couple sentences in my personal statement explaining my academic trend. The undiagnosed period left a clear imprint on my transcript (2.60,1.71, W, 1.70, Leave). The recovery period is also a clear block where I averaged a 2.5 for a year and a half. For the past five quarters, my GPA has not dropped below a 3.0, and I have not received less that a B in any class.

What contacts did you make as a research assistant? If you haven't asked them for advice about the application yet, do so.
Edit: My PI for the last two years graduated from my #1 choice. I have made sure to work my butt off in her lab; getting her discounts on everything she needs, getting certified to machine parts for her, spending as much time as possible making sure posters are perfect, and repairing/upgrading electronics.

The only advice I have been given by a PI is "Once they hear your story and read your letters, they will know what you are capable of. You will get into one of your grad schools." It is a nice answer, but I'm skeptical of it. I prefer to prepare as much as I can instead of following that advice.

One contact is at Stanford, but I doubt I can get in there. I have made other contacts through a professional conference I presented a poster at and plan to reach out to them. I will only be asking them questions about their research and school though.

Edit: I am also studying hard for the GRE.
 
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According to this interesting Reddit post by a biology professor, a few strategies open to you are:

1.) Doing extremely well on both the General and Subject GRE is a good way to show that you have the potential and at least get your application looked at
2.) Get solid research experience and excellent letters of recommendation, especially from a professor who might be willing to say that your academic record isn't reflective of your potential (if this is actually the case, of course). This of course means building good relationships with your current professors.
3.) Go to an interview and explain yourself, try to argue that your past record isn't reflective of your abilities.
4.) Focus on getting into a program that has an area of particular interest to you. If you want to study solid state physics, then make yourself familiar with some different programs' research and, if you like what you see at one particular program, make your interest in that research the focus of your application.
5.) Go to colloquia and conferences and actively participate. This ties in to point four. It's always a bonus in any job if the person you want to work for already knows your face and has some idea about who you are.
6.) Given that MSci programs are easier to get into than PhD programs, try to get into a Master's program and do well there before trying to get into a terminal degree.

And also, be willing to accept an offer at an institution that is possibly less prestigious than you may have hoped, and possibly with less generous terms regarding finances than you might prefer. You're not going to be in a position to be picky.

This is how I managed to get into a decent program with full funding despite a truly atrocious transcript and GPA (Final GPA <2.5, not getting A's in major courses until my last year). I had the maximum possible score on the physics GRE, 96th percentile on the general, two years of research experience (including with my name on a paper in the literature) and three years of working for my department as a tutor and a teaching assistant, and spent a lot of time networking and building relationships with faculty at my school who would be willing to advocate for me throughout the process. I had to graduate two years late, but it was necessary.

Basically, since you're not going to be able to stand on your GPA in the application process, you need to find other things you can stand on. Vanadium's question is very relevant, you need to have an answer for that. "Did research at Stanford" certainly seems like a good place to start.
 
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3.) Go to an interview and explain yourself, try to argue that your past record isn't reflective of your abilities.
Thanks for the info. How did you get an interview? Is that something schools do when they are considering you? Are there channels that someone can go through to get one?

Edit: I read the reddit post and know what you are talking about now.

Did you do a MS before your PhD? Did the coursework roll over or did you have to retake everything?
 
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307
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Thanks for the info. How did you get an interview? Is that something schools do when they are considering you? Are there channels that someone can go through to get one?
Before beginning the application process, send a polite and professional email to a professor you want to work with saying something along the lines of "I'm very interested in working for this program for (reasons x, y, and z) but I'm concerned that my profile is weak. Would it be possible to meet in person to discuss my situation?". Be prepared to come in and put everything in the open, be honest and don't make excuses, and ask what you can do to convince this person to work with you (retake classes, standardized tests, etc). Remember you're not really trying to defend yourself here, rather you're trying to get an honest evaluation of your prospects and what you need to do moving forward.

Higher-tier schools probably won't be able to do much for you (they get thousands of applications from people who dont have bad GPAs) but a less competitive program will have a better chance of being willing to help you out if you can make a good case for yourself.
 

Vanadium 50

Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
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To be honest, I wouldn't worry about this.

There are going to be schools that reject you out of hand with a 2.8. Thing is, they are also likely to reject you with a 2,8 and an excuse.

If you do well on your GRE, the picture you paint is of someone who got his act together and managed to learn some physics. That's as good a position as you could hope to find yourself in, and since your application will appeal to places that don't care why you had difficulty some years back, why muddy the waters by bringing up the past?

If you don't do well on the GRE you're kind of hosed anyway, so again, why bring it up?
 
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Thank you all so much for the advice! I really appreciate the honesty and your time. The plan now is keep doing research, study hard for the GRE, and reach out to some faculty to ask about their labs. It all seems so obvious when someone else says it.

If I don't happen to get into a PhD program or one of the two paid MS programs I am applying to, I have two major options.
  1. Get a MS in Electrical Engineering (I got offered a full scholarship). I can use this time to take more upper division physics electives and get good grades in them. This option will take two years.
  2. I was offered a job at $80,000 in electrical engineering. I could take the job and study independently and take the GRE until I ace it, assuming my score can improve from when I was rejected. Maybe I could offer to volunteer at a lab or something in my free time. This option will take 1+ years.

Which, if any, would help my chances? Is there something else you might recommend? I may be able to talk my way into getting funding for a Physics MS, but the scholarship has a "cheapest option available" clause. The one of the cheapest MSEE in my state is also a very good MSEE.

 
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Thank you all so much for the advice! I really appreciate the honesty and your time. The plan now is keep doing research, study hard for the GRE, and reach out to some faculty to ask about their labs. It all seems so obvious when someone else says it.

If I don't happen to get into a PhD program or one of the two paid MS programs I am applying to, I have two major options.
  1. Get a MS in Electrical Engineering (I got offered a full scholarship). I can use this time to take more upper division physics electives and get good grades in them. This option will take two years.
I'm a little confused, are you saying that you've already been offered a full ride to an MSci? If so, then what are you worried about? Do well enough in that and no one will look twice at your undergraduate record.

I was offered a job at $80,000 in electrical engineering. I could take the job and study independently and take the GRE until I ace it, assuming my score can improve from when I was rejected. Maybe I could offer to volunteer at a lab or something in my free time. This option will take 1+ years.
This gives you another option. Stick around in the job for a couple years and convince your employer to pay for it. A lot of people in engineering do that.
 
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To be honest, I wouldn't worry about this.

There are going to be schools that reject you out of hand with a 2.8. Thing is, they are also likely to reject you with a 2,8 and an excuse.

If you do well on your GRE, the picture you paint is of someone who got his act together and managed to learn some physics. That's as good a position as you could hope to find yourself in, and since your application will appeal to places that don't care why you had difficulty some years back, why muddy the waters by bringing up the past?

If you don't do well on the GRE you're kind of hosed anyway, so again, why bring it up?
Are you asking me or OP?

I bring up the GRE because it's what worked for me. When I realized that it was too late to meaningfully recover my GPA, rather than try to make excuses, I pulled it together and focused on developing an application profile that was strong enough in spite of the weak grades that an excuse wouldn't have been necessary in the first place.

I obviously don't want to downplay how serious OP's situation is, but he should also know that there are still options, however limited they may be.
 
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Are you asking me or OP?

I bring up the GRE because it's what worked for me. When I realized that it was too late to meaningfully recover my GPA, rather than try to make excuses, I pulled it together and focused on developing an application profile that was strong enough in spite of the weak grades that an excuse wouldn't have been necessary in the first place.

I obviously don't want to downplay how serious OP's situation is, but he should also know that there are still options, however limited they may be.
I believe Vanadium as referring to bringing up my past in applications.

I think you are both completely correct. I should focus on proving my ability rather than count on sympathy, which would only cause complacency.
 
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I'm a little confused, are you saying that you've already been offered a full ride to an MSci? If so, then what are you worried about? Do well enough in that and no one will look twice at your undergraduate record.

This gives you another option. Stick around in the job for a couple years and convince your employer to pay for it. A lot of people in engineering do that.
I have a full ride for an MSEE (I'm a double major PHYS and EE). The MSEE would be really fun, it would just take two years and housing is expensive in that area. I could also specialize in controls or something else that would help me become a better experimental physicist. If taking the job requires more than a few years of working in industry, I will probably go the MSEE route. I have heard too many stories of people getting comfy with their engineering salaries.
 

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