How am I ever going to get into graduate school? Advice wanted!

I’ve been out of college for a couple of years. I taught inner-city 8th graders Algebra with Teach for America, but I’m done now. I didn’t get into grad school for the fall, and I’m starting to work on applications again. Here are my issues:

  1. My GPA was only a 3.25. I could give a lot of lame excuses, but basically I worked too much on my jobs and extra curriculars in college, and not enough on classwork. “Being well rounded” seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t.

2)I went to a huge school, and never really got to know many profs (except for one or two on a research project I did, but that was five years ago and they’ve all since left the university for parts unknown). Thus, my only letters of recommendation I feel confident about come from my current boss and my previous Teach for America advisor - no professors.

3)My regular GRE scores are awesome, but my subject scores (Math) sorta sucked. I’m working on it.

So - how to I smooth over these problems and turn myself into a killer grad school candidate? Do I apply for a Masters program and see if they’ll let me in & upgrade to PhD later? Do I give up on hard-core Math and switch programs entirely (maybe History of Science)? Do I take some post-bac classes for a few semesters at the local state school until I get some good grades behind me (which I plan to do regardless)? I feel like I want a do-over of the last 7 years, but until they invent the wayback machine, what do I do?

In my field (philosophy), there are MA programs which bill themselves as sort of preparatory courses for PhD programs. They are geared toward people who have an insufficient background in philosophy, or who are talented but who for whatever reason performed below their potential as undergraduates. Many of these MA programs are quite good, and are a good stepping stone for good PhD programs. If your field is math, and if there are such programs in math, then people on these boards would no doubt be able to tell you which schools have such programs. Not knowing the particulars of your field, this is the course I would recommend.

Keep in mind: if you apply to a school just for a masters, then I think you’re less likely to get a stipend – which almost everyone in a math/science grad school has, in my experience.

It’s hard to say what to do. . .if those math GREs aren’t there, then they’re going to pass you over for someone who does have them.

One thing about grad school – at least in Math – there’s not really room for posers. If you can’t hack it, then you probably won’t get in, and if you do get in, you can be exposed pretty quickly.

(I was in applied math programs. What I say is probably more true of pure math departments.)

While all pure math departments out there probably require the math gre, not all mathematical departments do. Look into statistics departments, management sciences (aka operations research), computer science, and maybe econometrics. Those are all mathematical and may be more forgiving of your math gre’s than a pure math department.

If it comes down to it, look into economics. You’ll be able to seek out problems that satisfy your math jones in a department like that.

Okay - I had:

  • a much lower GPA - about a 2.8
  • went to a big school - maybe one or two profs to work on for letters
  • little-to-no extra-curricular - some obvious Junior Achievement type stuff.
  • I also did really well on my entrance exams - in my case GMATs - very strong.

And I got into a top 3 business school, Northwestern’s Kellogg school. How?

  • I got my story straight: I was a Computer Science major undergrad who wanted more of a business job, not a true tech job. I summarized my situation to myself as: I took the major, did well enough but realized what I really wanted to do, pursued an appropriate post-college job (working at HP in a business role), and nailed my GMATs - thus “proving” my increased focus and fit with a more business-oriented direction. Getting my “story” down enabled me to weave it into everything - the application essays I had to write, the networking and interviewing I did, etc.
  • I focused on schools that interviewed - I am an outgoing, gregarious person who can be persistent. Given the obstacles I had to overcome - did I already mention my 2.8 GPA?? - I basically had to focus on personal presentation. At the time a few schools interviewed all applicants and I focused on those. And got into all of them, while not getting into most schools I applied to that didn’t interview.
  • I wrote powerful essays. It is very easy to take the essays you have to write - do you have to write any? - at face value. Yes, they ask questions about “what is your biggest accomplishment and why?” - so? I had gotten hung up about not being an astronaut or gold-medal winner - my accomplishments felt SO banal. But then I realized that they key to the whole question was not the accomplishment, but the “why?” One woman I know wrote that essay about running a 10K - what is that: 5 miles? who cares? - but told a powerful story about why it represented a major accomplishment to her. It worked. I did the same thing with all of my essays.

Hope this helps.

Thanks for the fast replies! I know how difficult math grad programs are, and while I would say that in my undergrad years I was a poser (though a mildly talented one), I know how to throw my back into work now, and I’m much more confident in my ability to do well. I also plan to work a lot harder on the essays this time around than last year - I have a much more focused “story” now, and I’m going to farm the editing out to a few friends before I send 'em in. I appreciate the advice - it at least lets me know I’m going in the right directions.

One other complication that I forgot to throw in is that I don’t have a lot of options when it comes to schools. The man who just became my husband moved down here for me last year, and now he’s got a cushy physics grad position at GA tech. I don’t want him to have to pack up his life and move for me twice in 2 years. So I’m really limited to schools here in the Atlanta area. Just another monkey wrench thrown into the works.

Keep it coming; you’re all very helpful!

You’d be surprised at how much real-world experience counts (in CS; I can’t speak for other disciplines).

Here’s an idea that worked for my wife, although you might not have the luxury. I was accepted to the graduate school I now attend, while my wife was not (fourth or fifth on a short list of three). She met with some professors in the department she was interested in, and made a deal to work for one of them for a semester, at no charge, doing whatever was required. She ended up doing some cleanup in the labs, while working with the instruments and gathering/processing data. Just being there, being dilligent, showing interest, and becoming familiar with the professor’s research was enough.

Of course, you need to choose carefully. My wife lucked out with a great advisor. Best of luck to you…

First, find out if you’re actually good enough (and really interested enough) in math to want to go to grad school in it. Take some high-level undergraduate math courses from the best local university that you can get to accept you for undergraduate work. I think you should be able to find one that will allow you to take undergraduate courses even though you already have a bachelors degree. Then see how well you do in those courses. If you can get A’s in them and enjoy them, then you should have no problem getting into a masters program in math. You can’t get into a truly top math graduate program, but so what? I think you already know that.

What do you want to do with a math graduate degree? Do you want to get a Ph.D. and teach at university-level? Do you want to be a mathematician? Do you want to go back to teaching high school math but at a top private school? What do you want to do with your life?

I think Wendall Wagner gave you the best advice.

I’m in pretty much the same boat as you and grad schools I’ve talked with are delighted with me so far (different field, though).

I actually envy you for having spent your time doing a “save the world” type of thing like Teach for America. That’s something I feel is missing, since I have been doing corporate work and getting an M.S. in an essentially unrelated field in my intervening years. If I were you I’d play that up, not down. It’s a great thing to have done.

One thing I would mention is that your undergrad professors 99% for sure didn’t drop off the face of the earth. Google them. Contact the department. The academic world is small and these people are probably only an email away. I’m going to send my professors my resume, personal statement, and a copy of the thesis they advised me on to refresh their memories so they are comfortable with who I was and who I’ve become.

Good luck!

Thanks again for the advice. I’ve applied to take a class or two at GSU in the spring, I’m studying my behind off for the GRE in December, and I’m gonna see if I can find somebody from the old research group to talk to. And I’ll try to talk to some folks in Math departments around here (once I have some credentials to show that I can put my money where my mouth is).

Oh, and why a math phd? Good question - one I’ve been agonizing over for a few years. I think the real reason is that being a professional mathematician is as close as anybody can come to being paid to solve puzzles all day. Also, I’m a bang-up math teacher, which I know is desperatly needed in college math departments (even if the departments themselves don’t always realize it). I really love the subject, now I’ve just gotta prove that I can be good at it.