Can you get into a top grad school with bad grades early in your undergrad?

I’m majoring in statistics with a certificate in math, but I didn’t declare that until the end of my junior year. Before that, I got terrible grades and almost flunked out because I just had no motivation, but deciding on what I want to do has completely turned that around for me; I love statistics and I’ve gotten A’s in all my core classes. Right now, I’m on my fifth and second-to-last year of undergrad. My GPA over my final four or five semesters should be well over a 3.5, but my cumulative will definitely stay below a 3.0. Maybe even below a 2.5! To really show how much effort I can put in, I’m planning on taking 18 credits for the next two semesters, almost all advanced math and statistics courses, and I’m even going to work full time over winter break and summer so I can afford to take off work during those semesters and focus only on school so I can get all or nearly all A’s. If all goes as planned, I’ll also be starting a research position with a professor during that time. But that isn’t guaranteed.

I’m not worried at all about how well I’ll do with those classes, it sounds like fun to me. My concern is that I didn’t put in the effort and got the grades for a long enough time. My dream schools are Columbia and Cornell, but would they want someone who slacked off until later in their undergrad?

I would really appreciate any advice from someone qualified to answer!

What degree do you plan to apply for- Masters or PhD? in what field- Stats? Applied Math? other? and for what sort of job? Why Columbia & Cornell?

The answers to all of those questions are important in shaping an answer.

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What @collegemom3717 said. What degree, what field, and what career?

I’m planning on applying for their masters in statistics programs, which would then involve a PhD program after completion. For a career, I might want to work for government or industry, or just scientific research, or go into academia. I’m hoping that getting a research position can help me decide on that.

Masters in statistics, and I want to work in either academia, government, or research.

Do that because you want to or because you are able to, but not b/c you think it will impress the AOs.

Why those Columbia and Cornell? I am a little familiar with the Cornell set up, and it doesn’t look like a great fit from your post. Or…is it a brand-name thing?

I would bet a masters with an exceptionally high gpa will be enough to get into a solid PhD program despite lackluster undergraduate performance. As a former lawyer, I can say an exceptionally high LSAT score can get you deep into the T13, potentially Harvard and certainly NYU, despite a horrible GPA.

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The GPA would not need to be exceptionally high, unless you mean 3.75-3.8.

What @Johnny_L would need to do is a thesis masters in which he demonstrated the ability to do research. That likely means a thesis which has at least one publishable article, and good LoRs from the faculty.

The weakness of the OPs application for a PhD programs that I can see is that they have no research experience, no interactions with faculty, etc.

I knew somebody back when I was a grad student who finished her BSc with a 2.7 GPA, and was accepted to a good PhD program. She had been working as an undergrad in the lab of a really top researcher in the field, and her field work, personal research, and a glowing, personal LoR (and a well written statement of purpose) got her into the program. Her GRE scores were good, but not great.

Mind you, a high GPA would help in admissions, but without that demonstration of research abilities, a GPA of 4.0 for a masters program will not make the OP very competitive for any good PhD program.

Truth is, getting a high GPA in a masters program is not all that difficult. A masters student is taking courses in their field of choice, which they are interested in, and in which they have decent level abilities. I have had very few thesis masters students who have gotten Bs and none who have gotten Cs.

The old saying for graduate students is that the grades go like this:
A - Average
B - Below average
C - Confused. Too Confused to have dropped the course.

Unlike PhD students, masters students are not ensured financial support. So unless you are independently wealthy, you will not be able to afford a masters in any private university. Your profile, as you present it, indicates that receiving merit support is unlikely. Masters programs in these universities are extremely competitive, and it is unlikely that you will be accepted, unless all of your grades in your major courses are As.

You need to find a solid masters program which will accept you, and work hard, and demonstrate top abilities in research in order to have a chance for admissions to one of these programs.

Here is an important question - do you know what a PhD student in statistic does? PhD research is statistics is radically different than taking courses and learning how to use statistics, and how to understand statistics.

Before you commit to trying to go off and do a PhD in statistics, you first need to figure out whether this is something that you want to do and are willing to do, and whether it is something that you are able to do.

Finally, forget about “dream schools”. You don’t know what a school’s graduate program looks like, what the work is like, what the faculty and students are like, or what it is like to be a graduate student at any university. You also do not know whether anybody is working on a topic that interests you enough that you would want to spend 5-7 years working a small part of that topic. As far as you know, being a graduate student at Cornell could be a nightmare for you.


I made the mistake of picking a top party school for my undergrad. I’m a savant with no friends here (hence my poor grades early on), and for whom math is one of my few strengths, and I just want to be at a place where I don’t feel invisible.

Is this in response to the 'why Cornell & Columbia" question? if so, that’s still not a question. Why those 2 schools in particular?

Grad is v v different than UG, and the self-selection of who applies to an MSc in Stats / PhD track is meaningful.

Also, if you are a math savant in a ‘top party school’, you should not be invisible where you are! you should be a star in the stats/math department!

It’s not really just those two schools, those are just the two I named. I’m really asking about schools that are very good but not impossible, like Harvard.

Your last comment is extremely offensive to me, as someone on the autism spectrum. What does being a “star” have to do with being a savant with aspergers? You clearly don’t get what it’s like. All I was trying to tell you is that I don’t fit in at my current university, which is only known for partying, to answer your question “why Cornell”. Why are you even concerned with my reason for wanting to go there? All I wanted to know is if my low overall gpa excludes me or not.

Please explain to me how your last comment about savants answers my question, or admit that your intentions are elsewhere.

Thank you, very helpful.

Not entirely sure that I want to jump into the above posts, but I’ll leave my two cents (AKA my probably-not-very-humble opinion).

Forget about the name. Find what professors and schools offer your areas of interest (regarding research). A huge part of graduate admissions is your “fit” with the professors and research interests of the program. This matters more for PhD admissions, but it certainly matters for Masters admissions, too.

Now, you might find that your research interests line up with Cornell and Columbia. But make sure to find other schools that have a good “fit”—maybe U Rochester, U Buffalo, Syracuse, RPI? Just throwing suggestions out there…I’m not pursuing a graduate degree in statistics, at least not at the moment, so you would know best.

As for Columbia, most people would consider Columbia to be on par with Harvard—yes, admissions wise.

Cornell, maybe. Depends on your “fit.”


…understand the definition of “savant”

Which requires truly phenomenal abilities in one area = “star”

Being aspie and middling decent (A- GPA or 3.66 would qualify as middling decent) in one subject doesn’t make anyone a “savant.”

Original grad level math while in middle school is more like savant territory.

I guess I picked the wrong word… you still don’t seem to be paying any attention to my point, nor interested in answering my question.

Does not being a savant mean I can’t get into Cornell? Otherwise, I don’t see how your response is on-topic.

Thanks for telling me that I’m not a savant, it’s good to have a better understanding of that term. But I have yet to get a decent answer to my question from you.

Sorry, I didn’t realize you are a different person than before. But what does the definition of savant have to do in the context of this question? You’re not helpful.

You said that you are unhappy and feel ‘invisible’ in a “top party school”, but you are also in the math/stats department, where there should be at least some other students with whom you share interests (in your subject, if nothing else). I am not sure what exactly was offensive about saying that a savant is likely to be a star in the department, but in case definitions are part of the problem, my understanding of a savant Is somebody with an exceptional ability in a very specific area. A math savant would stand out to math/stat profs, making that person something of a star with them.

Savant or not, most profs love their subject, and are delighted to find students who love their subject also. When you apply to grad school you will need 2-3 LoRs from subject-relevant profs / researchers. A LoR from your Stats prof that talks about you as a stand-out in the department can off-set poor grades in non-relevant classes. It’s not a guarantee- but it opens up possibilities.

I was trying to understand what, in particular, stood out to you about those two programs- what made them your ‘dream’ schools- because they are structured so differently.

For grad school the exact program or the department matters more than the overall name of the university. For example, Columbia for undergrad would have been a very unlikely admit for one of my collegekids- but for grad school it was a safety! That’s because Columbia isn’t particularly strong in her field- in fact there are at least 15 public (state) universities (and about a dozen private unis) that are higher ranked for her subject than Columbia. Even Harvard barely squeaks into the top 20 for her field. Cornell and Columbia are both strong in stats, but the programs are structured pretty differently, and are likely to appeal to different students.

You are asking if it is possible to get into a highly-ranked Stats masters or phd program even with a poor CGPA. The shortest answer is yes, it is possible. Your MGPA will weigh more than your CGPA. Your LoRs will carry a lot of weight. You have another year to discern more about what you want from a program (including getting some research experience), which will help when it comes time to write your Statement of Purpose (the ‘why I want to do this degree’ essay).

I don’t understand at all what you mean by this, but like most of the posters on this site, the intention is to be helpful to students coming along. I know a fair bit about graduate school admissions (from both sides). When I see somebody say that a school is their ‘dream’ school and ask if they can they get in, the goal of the questions that I ask is to help figure out the most helpful answer.

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Thank you, this answer had the information I was looking for. In your previous reply, I felt like you were mocking me for using the term savant to describe myself as an aspie, that’s what I meant by your intentions being elsewhere. I thought the term was vague and synonymous with any aspie who is great at math.

But now you seem to be genuinely helpful.

Bottom line is nobody here can predict admissions to top grad schools any more than we can predict admissions to top undergrad schools. Your GPA will be a negative in your application. The question is can you offset that in the minds of admissions officers with things such as letters of recommendation, research, advanced coursework, essays, standardized tests etc.

As noted above, you can do great coming out of many reputable universities so expand your horizons, apply widely, and see how things play out.