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Anonymous PhD Student
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I have personal experience with this, so I may be able to help. I think the advice above about applying to MA programs is a good idea. At the very least, it will give you time to improve the quality of your writing sample, which is the single most important part of your application anyway. I've been able to talk with professors on admission committees at two top-20 programs (by Phil Gourmet rankings). What I've learned is that undergraduate grades are primarily used to weed out the students with exceptionally low grades (mainly because of the bureaucracy with the school in general). I'm not entirely familiar with the British grading scale, but it looks like you have a mixture of B+'s and A-'s, which I suspect would be good enough to make the initial cut (so as to ensure that your writing sample gets read relatively closely). My grades were similar, though I should note that my undergraduate institution was relatively prestigious (US News top 5). (Note that the prestige of my undergraduate institution works both ways because grade inflation makes my undergraduate GPA even less stellar). I applied to PhD programs two times. The first time I was not accepted anywhere and the second time I was accepted at two top 20 programs. Though there are many other variables (and so this should not be understood as evidence of any correlation), I flagged my grades the first time and did NOT flag them the second time. Admittedly, my situation may be somewhat different from yours as the difficulties I've experienced have been almost entirely the result of severe addiction problems (which is entirely my own responsibility). I've had these problems all throughout my academic career (and earlier), and so there have been relatively dramatic fluctuations in my academic record (including during my time as an MA student). The quality of my grades did not really improve between my undergraduate and MA studies, but my writing sample did improve considerably and I think this explains my later success more than anything. I also had relatively strong GREs (~95th percentile in each section), so that may help (rightly or wrongly) alleviate some concerns of admission committees. In short, from my own experience, I do not think being at around a 3.5 or 3.6 on the American scale is enough to keep you out of graduate schools. Provided the other parts of your application are strong, you should get accepted somewhere if you apply to a wide enough range of schools. I think ultimately not much will hinge on whether you explain the fluctuations in your grades or not: I suspect not much can be gained (or lost) from doing so (or not).
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May 29, 2015