1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Returning to school after failing out = lower chances for grad school?

  1. Mar 28, 2014 #1
    First of all, let me specify that I am not currently in this situation, however my significant other is. He was recently rejected from 13/14 grad schools he applied to and is trying to figure out why.

    Right out of high school, he went to Purdue for applied physics. He wasn't prepared for college, and failed out after three years. He went back to the work force, saved enough money for a second chance at school, and went to a different university at age 28 (this is where we met). He had clearly gotten his act together. He graduated with a math and physics degree in three years with a 4.0 GPA, had several publications in phys rev A, excellent letters of recommendation, and knew people "on the inside". Everyone figured he was a shoe-in for graduate school.

    He applied to fourteen different ones, was only accepted to one. His expectations weren't very high and he did not apply to any "shoot for the moon" schools.

    For those of you who have experience in admissions:
    How important is your past academic career?
    Is it only the school you graduated from that matters?
    Is it unethical to not list a poor academic record for a school you didn't get a degree from?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 28, 2014 #2
    I too had a disastrous first attempt at college out of HS, and returned to college at age 27. I graduate in May, and by the time I'm 32 (fall) I'll be in a grad school for physics, on a fellowship. Every school I applied to received ALL of my transcripts, and a note of explanation, and a preemptive email to explain the explanation.

    As far as the usual rankings are concerned, I only applied to one school higher than my undergrad, the rest were at or below. I haven't heard back from one yet (probably on the waitlist) but I've gotten two acceptances at schools ranked well below mine and three rejections. FWIW, I'm super-happy about the school I'm going to, it's an excellent fit for me and its reputation is climbing, so rankings shmankings.

    I do not believe my more-than-a-decade-old transcripts, chilling as they were, had any bearing on my acceptances/rejections. Actually I think it's because my SOP made it pretty clear I was primarily interested in gravity/GR/theory, a very hard area to get into (low funding and whatnot). My rejections all came well after the first rounds of rejections from those schools, which implies to me that I was waitlisted instead of rejected outright. I don't think it's a coincidence that the school that gave me the best offer is a private school flush with cash.

    If your SO applied for hard-to-get areas or low-funded areas that could explain the renections. My gpa was not 4.0 but it was ~3.8. And published in Phys. Rev. A is impressive. Tell us more about what areas they went for, and if they're happy with the school that accepted them?
  4. Mar 28, 2014 #3
    Because of your post about LSU in another thread, you'll have to forgive me for being inclined to think " he did not apply to any "shoot for the moon" schools" is an overstatement. If you named some of the schools it would be helpful, because for some, having publications as an undergrad is a bit of a banality nowadays... many/most admitted students at these schools have them. Still, without any more info, it is still very surprising he didn't get into a few more.

    Schools always ask for all undergrad transcripts if you did more than an x amount of credits at said school. I don't happen to think it is unethical to not provide a bad transcript from a school/degree you didn't complete, but supplying old transcripts in a situation like that could definitely have negative repercussions, especially if everyone else applying with a 4.0 has a cleaner record. Considering how cut-throat graduate admissions is right now, I'm sure that had something to do with it. I got into 3/15 schools I applied to so far, but then again I was fairly conservative with most of my choices and happen to have a citizenship status that makes it easier for schools to consider me compared to the typical international.

    In my case, it was impractical, very slow (months to get a transcript) and costly to provide a transcript from a prior institution, but all of the coursework and grades from it showed up in my final school's transcript with explanatory notes if they were taken at a different institution. Most schools were ok with this upon explaining, those that weren't had to settle for an old unofficial transcript from my earlier school (none of these schools accepted me).
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2014
  5. Mar 28, 2014 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    This can vary from school to school. A lot of schools will calculate an undergraduate GPA factoring everything in. Some will place more weight on more recent years. If you're applying to graduate school and something like this may be a concern it's worth contacting someone at the schools you're interested in and getting specific answers.

    But so far as I know just about all graduate schools require transcripts from all post-secondary institutions that you've attended. If you fail to provide that information, they have grounds to boot you out.

    There are other factors to consider too. How deeply did he investigate each of those 14 schools? I'll go out on a limb and guess he didn't visit each one.

    Some schools will admit by subfield, for instance. And that means that a stellar candidate could apply for a school that has few to no spots in a particular subfield and get rejected, even when other students who appear to have lower qualifications get in. This can even happen in schools that have decent reputations in particular subfields. If you don't have any supervisors in a position to take on a student in that area over the next year... you even have to let the "golden" students go unfortunately.

    Similarly, if you're not familiar with the school, it's easy to make the mistake of saying something in your admission essay or statement of purpose that can get you into the reject pile. These might be things like mentioning facilities or programs that don't exist, or making a statement along the lines of "I really don't care where I get in, I just want to go to grad school."

    Another thing that might be worth considering are his references - how sure is he that they are all positive? Most people won't write negative ones these days - they just simply don't write them. And sometimes you can get references that are meant to be good, but the referee just can't write all that well.
  6. Mar 28, 2014 #5

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    I agree that it would be helpful to know what the schools were, and what programs he is interested in.

    Grades are important, but a 4.0 at Princeton is not the same as a 4.0 at East Cupcake Community College. The strength of the program matters. If he went from Purdue to a very weak program, it's not crazy that the committee concluded "He couldn't handle Purdue, but he could handle ECCC. That means he can't handle our program."

    The Physics GRE is important. You didn't mention what it was. If it's low, this will certainly reinforce the above opinion.

    Students often overestimate the quality of their letters. "One of the best students this year and a good match to graduate school" is an *average* letter.

    Publications are not nearly as important as students think they are. The strength is that they allow the letters to show some specificity. Getting a name on a paper is not nearly so important.

    If a school asks you for transcripts from all schools (and most do), it is not only unethical, but if they find out, they are likely to ask the student to leave. I know of one case where they actually rescinded the degree.
  7. Mar 29, 2014 #6
    My SO applied for plasma/AMO (depending on the school). He was accepted to University of Nebraska - Lincoln, and is very happy with being accepted there, however he was of course frustrated that it was the only place that accepted him. But UNL is very good for AMO apparently, so it's not like he got the short straw.

    I'm sorry, but the part about ECCC made me laugh for a solid ten minutes :)

    His PGRE was 650, which compared to the rest of the country is very low. However, he was one of the highest scores at our university in 5-6 years (which I think should tell you about the strength of our program, haha).

    I can't believe that they would actually rescind a degree for that... yikes.
  8. Mar 29, 2014 #7
    Vanadium, tell me more about this rescinded degree, and the circumstances leading up to it. I'm soooooo glad I didn't withold anything, now I don't have to live in terror.

    Also, about this cupcake school, are there cupcakes? Is it real buttercream frosting or that nasty cream cheese stuff?
  9. Mar 29, 2014 #8

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    I was asked by the person involved not to provide any identifying details. The degree was a MD, and the student's application for admission was, as they say, problematic.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook