My Grad School Admissions Story

Last year, prior to a global pandemic uprooting all of our lives, I decided that I wanted to try going back to school. No one was more shocked by this decision than I. From primary school through my Bachelor degree, I always hated school.

But what I’ve realized in the recent years since I completed my BA, is that I didn’t hate everything about school, just the rigid structure. Most of my disinterest in my schooling can be chalked up to two major factors: 1) wrong place, wrong time and 2) all the systems I have known have been designed in opposition to my particular disability.

I graduated with my BA in May of 2018. In March of 2019, I was diagnosed with ADHD — just nine months after I graduated with my Bachelors degree. Meaning, I endured seventeen years of school with an undiagnosed learning disability and still came out relatively unscathed. Well, not really. 

I bring this up only because my admissions story is so heavily tied to this fact. I struggled in all academic institutions, not because I wasn’t capable, intelligent, or competent, but because I didn’t fit the American education system’s idea of a “good student.” And this wasn’t just at the university level. It was everything before that: high school, middle, and even primary school. 

However, because I was a female student growing up in the 2000s and did not display the “typical behaviors” of a child with ADHD, it was never a thought that occurred to anyone. And because I was never viewed through the lens of a child dealing with an attention disorder, I never had the resources necessary to cope and succeed in a system that is so built on restrictions and confinement — the exact things that inhibit success for those who live with ADHD.

Since my diagnosis, I have learned that I am far from the only person who has dealt with this exact issue. Child Mind Institute put together an amazing piece on the social and practical reasons why young females are so often overlooked when it comes to ADHD diagnoses. The “hyperactive” element in ADHD is so often thought of as only to be physical hyperactivity, something female children are so frequently shamed or punished for, even from early ages. But I, like many other people with ADHD, experience hyperactivity more on a mental level than physical. 

Now, if you don’t know me personally, all this may seem boring and trivial; but I promise it relates.

I graduated from my undergraduate program with a 2.9 GPA, a fact that I too often feel ashamed of. I so frequently have to remind myself that the fact that I graduated at all, let alone graduated in four years, is an accomplishment in and of itself considering all that I went through while I was there. 

However, once I got a handle on my disability and learned how to cope with it, all I could see was all I missed out on. And the biggest hole in this list was studying abroad. Before, school in the US was already too difficult to cope with, let alone learning an entirely new system that I probably wouldn’t fit into. Yet now, all I want to do is have that experience. But here’s the kicker: in the eyes of graduate/postgraduate admissions offices, a 2.9 GPA is not worthy.

Grad schools don’t care that I had an undiagnosed learning disability, or that I had to work full time to pay my bills, or that I had to work an unpaid internship if I had any hope of working in the field I studied. And despite the fact that I accomplished so much, even with all the things that should have prevented me from participating in higher education, doesn’t matter to admissions offices. (I say this as someone who worked within college admissions for four years. So, searching for a program that I would 1) enjoy, 2) could afford, and 3) qualify for in a country I wanted to study in became quite the treasure hunt.

Now, I wish this GPA story ended here; but unfortunately, it doesn’t. 

With universities experiencing record low enrollment rates with the need for distance learning, I figured if there was ever a time I’d be able to get in, it would be now. My BA is in English Writing Practices and I’ve recently completed writing my first novel. So, at first, I was looking mainly at creative writing and literature courses. Over the last six months of 2020, I compiled my list — until, I found the holy grail of Masters programs for the fairytale obsessed yours truly. 

The University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland has a Master of Letters program in Ethnology and Folklore, specializing in Scottish culture and history. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Scottish folklore and culture. AND the program did not have a GPA requirement but instead admitted students based on their personal statement and interest in the program. So, I polished my application to perfection, got a glowing letter of recommendation from one of my professors in Humboldt, and applied.

Once my application was submitted, I obsessively checked my email and application portal, hoping to hear back. Then, about a month after I applied, I was invited to a virtual preview event for the University of Aberdeen. I was excited for the opportunity to get to talk to current students and faculty and maybe get a feel for when my decision would be made.

The morning of the event, as I was patiently sitting at my desk at 5AM waiting for it start, I checked my application portal.

My heart skipped about two beats as I saw that my application turned over from “submission received” to “decision processed.” Absolutely flustered with anticipation, during the preview I asked an admissions officer how long it typically takes to know your admission decision once it’s been processed. The lovely rep that was helping me offered to look at my application for me and give me an update. 

It was the worst news: I was rejected.

The rejection letter read, “you have not met the minimum academic entry requirements.”

Yet, this program’s only academic requirement was that the applicant receive a Bachelor degree prior to the start of session — which I had. However, every other program at this university required a minimum 3.5 GPA. It doesn’t take much deductive reasoning to figure the rejection was due to GPA.

I tried not to beat myself up about it. Like I said previously, there were some pretty extraordinary circumstances surrounding such an assessment. If I beat myself up every time I didn’t quite hold up to an impossible standard, I’d be forever battered and bruised.

Instead, I grieved the possibility for my life that program offered and did my best to move on. I kept applying to other programs, most of which were in creative writing somehow with GPA requirements. (I’m of the opinion that GPA is irrelevant to someone’s creative writing ability, but such is academia.)

Then, about a month after the rejection, I received an email from the head of the Elphinstone Institute, the college that houses the Ethnology and Folklore program at the University of Aberdeen. In this initial email, I was informed that my rejection was a mistake, that there was no reason I should have been rejected, and I in fact would be a great fit for the program.

The program director wanted to know if I was still interested in the program. As you can imagine, I was ecstatic! I responded immediately stating that my interest and intentions hadn’t changed. The next day, he let me know that this same mistake has been made before, where the university rejects applicants for their program without sending them to the department way first.

Having previously worked in an university admissions office, here’s what I think happened: 

Often, universities use auto-filters to reject anyone who doesn’t meet the minimum requirements. This helps narrow down the workload pretty significantly for the actual people who work in admissions. I can see a scenario playing out where a program with requirements that differ from the university would see the occasional stray student being lost to these auto-filters. Unfortunately, I think I was one of those unlucky casualties of the filter.

Thankfully, someone caught the mistake. The huge, life-changing mistake.

It’s moments like these that make me grateful someone was thorough at work. I’m grateful that my application still somehow made it to his desk, despite the rejection. Thankfully, someone decided that this arbitrary number doesn’t define me and that I am worthy of higher learning. Someone decided I’m worth giving the chance.

I had grieved the program, grieved that possibility for my life. And now, I’m preparing to move to Scotland. 

Keep an eye out for future posts from me as I embark on this new journey!

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