Grade Inflation And Graduate Admissions

Grade Inflation and Graduate Admissions


Grade Inflation and Graduate Admissions

In recent years there has been a lot of discussion surrounding grade inflation and its impact on higher education. From a professor’s standpoint, it can feel like a no win situation–you’re consistently exposed to more and more pressure to dole out high grades from both students and administration.
Students on the other hand, can either be cheated or unfairly helped because of these trends. A program that consistently grades more harshly than others may hurt an applicants chances of winning external awards, fellowships, or even getting accepted to graduate school at all. On the flip side grade inflation may help students obtain post-graduation employment by keeping up with current expectations.
What’s less discussed, is how grade inflation and graduate admissions play off each other. As someone applying to PhD programs, grade inflation could seriously impact how your application is assessed by an admissions committee, so it’s worth discussing how you can mitigate potential problems.

 

 

Grade Inflation Is Very Real

The first major update in seven years of a database on grade inflation was released less than a month ago. It found that grades are continuing to rise across the country, and that an A is now the most common grade earned. This is a bit vexing to students and faculty alike. In the old days, a C was average, by definition this meant that half the grades were better than this, half the grades were worse than this. On today’s college campuses, a C can be considered failing, and usually is failing where graduate classes are concerned.
The update, given by gradeinflation.com, outlines this slow but steady history of inflation across private, public and community colleges.

Grade Inflation and Graduate Admissions

 

Grade Inflation and Graduate Admissions

 

 

Despite being common knowledge, few universities can decide how to handle the problem, particularly with student reviews and post graduate placement being such important metrics these days.

 

 

The Different Ways of Grading

Without getting too deep into a discussion about grade inflation (after all, faculty can’t even agree on whether it matters or how to deal with it), there are a few nuts and bolts to keep in mind as a grad school applicant. At its core, grade inflation is a discussion about norm-referenced vs. criterion-referenced grade distribution.
The normed-reference system is one in which students complete against each other for grades. It is a variation of the bell curve, where grades are given proportionately among the students in the class with certain percentages of students receiving one of the five letter grades. In this set up some students will always fail, some will always get A’s, and most will end up in the middle–regardless of how much material they do or do not understand. This set up has the advantage of mirroring the real world. Employers want the best person they can find for the job. This might be someone who doesn’t have all qualifications they want, but is the best they can get. Conversely, a second best applicant could be capable of doing the job just as well, but why hire the second best when you can hire the best? Some universities are known for implementing this kind of strategy more than others. MIT and Caltech are good examples of schools that tend to pit classmates against each other in an effort “weed out” students.
The alternative to this is a criterion-referenced system in which specific criteria are established for each grade. In this grading scheme the professor, students, and administration all know exactly what is expected to attain each of the letter grades. Theoretically, all of the students in the class could receive an A or all of them could fail. Each student must demonstrate the same set of core knowledge associated with each letter grade. In this scheme, grades reflect less on how you stack up against your peers, and instead tells a person how much of the material you understand. Universities like Harvard and Yale have historically been more prone to this type of grading scheme. This is also how a lot of state schools, community colleges, and liberal arts colleges approach grading given that they have no incentive to try to weed out (i.e. fail) students.
To make things even more confusing, field specific variations are fairly common as well. A lot of STEM fields take a criterion based approach, yet medical school is almost entirely norm-referenced–with students competing aggressively to be a fraction ahead of their peers.
In reality, all universities, departments, and professors assign grades based on an undefined mix of these two systems. The lack of defined standards make it very difficult to assess what the difference between an A and a B+ really means.

 

 

What Does This Mean And How To Handle It On Applications

So what does this mean for graduate applications? It means that a 3.3 GPA is no longer competitive where graduate school is concerned. Most incoming students will have at least above a 3.5, with most in the 3.7 – 4.0 range. For those in the humanities and social sciences, it’s more like 3.9+ in many cases. There is, as always, give and take to this rule. Nonetheless it’s important for applicants to realize that even though a B+ average seems great, with so many students getting high averages, it is no longer enough to definitively set you apart from your peers. Particularly when you’re competing at an international level (which you are when it comes to graduate admissions).
So what can you do about it?
First, find your class rank if at all possible, and convert this to a percentile.  If you only have a 3.4 GPA, but this equates to a 95th percentile ranking (which might be the case in say in your department), either your class rank or percentile needs to go on your CV– preferably right next to your GPA. If you’re in an enormous department, percentiles might be better to highlight. For a small department, class rank might look better. Tailor it to your situation.
If your GPA is relatively high (>3.7), but your class rank or percentile ranking isn’t very impressive, your department or school probably has a standard level of grade inflation, and it’s best to leave ranking information out of your CV and Statement of Purpose.
Now you need to figure out how your GPA or percentile rank compares to incoming graduate students at your prospective schools. The best way to get this type of information is to scour the admit profiles statistics. Some programs will state this information publicly on their webpage. If you can’t find any information on the department website, email the graduate admissions officer and ask for information regarding their typical admit profile. You can usually get at least a general range from them, even if they’re deliberately vague: “In recent years accepted applicants to our Anthropology PhD program have typically had above a 3.5 GPA average and were in the top 90th percentile of their graduating class.”
Keep these kinds of statements in mind, but don’t let them make or break your decision to apply either. Words like typically, average, above X.X, can all be interpreted in a variety of ways. That statement would hold true if they accepted 3 applicants, one with a 2.9 and two with 3.6’s. Likewise, students with no research experience could have gotten in with 4.0’s, while those students who worked a lot during undergraduate were accepted with a 3.2. Be mindful of your range but keep perspective on how it meshes with your application as a whole.

 

To summarize, as far as grade inflation and graduate admissions go, your best move is to present your grades in as favorable a light as possible–by either highlighting (or not highlighting) your class or percentile rank. Perhaps your undergrad institution just implemented a new program to combat grade inflation (e.g. Princeton University and Wellesley College, among other institutions, have recently debated ways to limit grade inflation), if that’s the case you should definitely mention that to admissions committees.
If that information still isn’t enough to explain a slightly lower GPA, then you’ll need to address it somehow. Read through our tips on how to get into graduate school with a low GPA and see if you can improve your chances relatively quickly.

 

 

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Grade Inflation And Graduate Admissions

Grade Inflation and Graduate Admissions April 24th, 2016


Grade Inflation and Graduate Admissions

In recent years there has been a lot of discussion surrounding grade inflation and its impact on higher education. From a professor’s standpoint, it can feel like a no win situation–you’re consistently exposed to more and more pressure to dole out high grades from both students and administration.
Students on the other hand, can either be cheated or unfairly helped because of these trends. A program that consistently grades more harshly than others may hurt an applicants chances of winning external awards, fellowships, or even getting accepted to graduate school at all. On the flip side grade inflation may help students obtain post-graduation employment by keeping up with current expectations.
What’s less discussed, is how grade inflation and graduate admissions play off each other. As someone applying to PhD programs, grade inflation could seriously impact how your application is assessed by an admissions committee, so it’s worth discussing how you can mitigate potential problems.

 

 

Grade Inflation Is Very Real

The first major update in seven years of a database on grade inflation was released less than a month ago. It found that grades are continuing to rise across the country, and that an A is now the most common grade earned. This is a bit vexing to students and faculty alike. In the old days, a C was average, by definition this meant that half the grades were better than this, half the grades were worse than this. On today’s college campuses, a C can be considered failing, and usually is failing where graduate classes are concerned.
The update, given by gradeinflation.com, outlines this slow but steady history of inflation across private, public and community colleges.

Grade Inflation and Graduate Admissions

 

Grade Inflation and Graduate Admissions

 

 

Despite being common knowledge, few universities can decide how to handle the problem, particularly with student reviews and post graduate placement being such important metrics these days.

 

 

The Different Ways of Grading

Without getting too deep into a discussion about grade inflation (after all, faculty can’t even agree on whether it matters or how to deal with it), there are a few nuts and bolts to keep in mind as a grad school applicant. At its core, grade inflation is a discussion about norm-referenced vs. criterion-referenced grade distribution.
The normed-reference system is one in which students complete against each other for grades. It is a variation of the bell curve, where grades are given proportionately among the students in the class with certain percentages of students receiving one of the five letter grades. In this set up some students will always fail, some will always get A’s, and most will end up in the middle–regardless of how much material they do or do not understand. This set up has the advantage of mirroring the real world. Employers want the best person they can find for the job. This might be someone who doesn’t have all qualifications they want, but is the best they can get. Conversely, a second best applicant could be capable of doing the job just as well, but why hire the second best when you can hire the best? Some universities are known for implementing this kind of strategy more than others. MIT and Caltech are good examples of schools that tend to pit classmates against each other in an effort “weed out” students.
The alternative to this is a criterion-referenced system in which specific criteria are established for each grade. In this grading scheme the professor, students, and administration all know exactly what is expected to attain each of the letter grades. Theoretically, all of the students in the class could receive an A or all of them could fail. Each student must demonstrate the same set of core knowledge associated with each letter grade. In this scheme, grades reflect less on how you stack up against your peers, and instead tells a person how much of the material you understand. Universities like Harvard and Yale have historically been more prone to this type of grading scheme. This is also how a lot of state schools, community colleges, and liberal arts colleges approach grading given that they have no incentive to try to weed out (i.e. fail) students.
To make things even more confusing, field specific variations are fairly common as well. A lot of STEM fields take a criterion based approach, yet medical school is almost entirely norm-referenced–with students competing aggressively to be a fraction ahead of their peers.
In reality, all universities, departments, and professors assign grades based on an undefined mix of these two systems. The lack of defined standards make it very difficult to assess what the difference between an A and a B+ really means.

 

 

What Does This Mean And How To Handle It On Applications

So what does this mean for graduate applications? It means that a 3.3 GPA is no longer competitive where graduate school is concerned. Most incoming students will have at least above a 3.5, with most in the 3.7 – 4.0 range. For those in the humanities and social sciences, it’s more like 3.9+ in many cases. There is, as always, give and take to this rule. Nonetheless it’s important for applicants to realize that even though a B+ average seems great, with so many students getting high averages, it is no longer enough to definitively set you apart from your peers. Particularly when you’re competing at an international level (which you are when it comes to graduate admissions).
So what can you do about it?
First, find your class rank if at all possible, and convert this to a percentile.  If you only have a 3.4 GPA, but this equates to a 95th percentile ranking (which might be the case in say in your department), either your class rank or percentile needs to go on your CV– preferably right next to your GPA. If you’re in an enormous department, percentiles might be better to highlight. For a small department, class rank might look better. Tailor it to your situation.
If your GPA is relatively high (>3.7), but your class rank or percentile ranking isn’t very impressive, your department or school probably has a standard level of grade inflation, and it’s best to leave ranking information out of your CV and Statement of Purpose.
Now you need to figure out how your GPA or percentile rank compares to incoming graduate students at your prospective schools. The best way to get this type of information is to scour the admit profiles statistics. Some programs will state this information publicly on their webpage. If you can’t find any information on the department website, email the graduate admissions officer and ask for information regarding their typical admit profile. You can usually get at least a general range from them, even if they’re deliberately vague: “In recent years accepted applicants to our Anthropology PhD program have typically had above a 3.5 GPA average and were in the top 90th percentile of their graduating class.”
Keep these kinds of statements in mind, but don’t let them make or break your decision to apply either. Words like typically, average, above X.X, can all be interpreted in a variety of ways. That statement would hold true if they accepted 3 applicants, one with a 2.9 and two with 3.6’s. Likewise, students with no research experience could have gotten in with 4.0’s, while those students who worked a lot during undergraduate were accepted with a 3.2. Be mindful of your range but keep perspective on how it meshes with your application as a whole.

 

To summarize, as far as grade inflation and graduate admissions go, your best move is to present your grades in as favorable a light as possible–by either highlighting (or not highlighting) your class or percentile rank. Perhaps your undergrad institution just implemented a new program to combat grade inflation (e.g. Princeton University and Wellesley College, among other institutions, have recently debated ways to limit grade inflation), if that’s the case you should definitely mention that to admissions committees.
If that information still isn’t enough to explain a slightly lower GPA, then you’ll need to address it somehow. Read through our tips on how to get into graduate school with a low GPA and see if you can improve your chances relatively quickly.

 

 

By
@
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