Long before you have the opportunity to talk to a potential employer (PE) or the members of a graduate admissions committee (MGAC), several documents will have already told them a great deal about you. Although different PEs and MGACs place different levels of emphasis on each of these credentials, all of these documents can play an important role in your professional future.
What exactly are these documents, and what do they say about you to the people who will make the decisions that will determine the path and success of your professional career? Your cover letter will have communicated your abilities to spell, to write in grammatically correct English, and to produce a professional-appearing document. Your resume or curriculum vitae will have explained your career goals and the strategies you have used to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to reach your goals. Your letters of recommendation will have provided evidence that you possess the skills and characteristics necessary to thrive in the career or graduate program for which you are applying. Your personal statement will have explained your professional plans and how they fit with the particular career or graduate program you are pursuing. And last—but by no means least—your transcript will speak volumes about your potential as a future employee or graduate student. Let us look at 11 different transcripts to see what they communicate about their owners.
1 Low Grades
Transcript #1 contains mostly Cs, a few Bs, and an occasional D. This transcript says, "My owner is a person who does not possess the type of analytical intelligence that Sternberg (1985) says is necessary to excel in a traditional college or university curriculum." This does not mean you do not possess what Sternberg describes as creative or practical intelligence, but you will need strong evidence to describe your creative or practical abilities to a PE who may value these talents more highly than "book learning." Unfortunately, MGACs would probably wonder why you went through the trouble and expense of applying to their school with an academic record that reflects such weak analytical skills.
2 Mixed Grades
Transcript #2 contains a wide variety of grades ranging from very low to very high. This transcript says, "My owner is capable of doing good work in some areas, but you will be disappointed in his/her performance in others." Does this sound like something a PE or a MGAC wants to hear about a potential employee or graduate student? Of course, not everyone can be good at everything, and experienced PEs and MGACs may attempt to match applicants' strengths to their particular positions or programs.
3 Low Grades in Methods Courses
Transcript #3 contains high grades in content courses (e.g., abnormal, personality, and developmental psychology), but low grades in methods courses such as statistics, psychological testing, and research methods. This transcript says, "My owner is more interested in what psychologists have discovered than in how they have made these discoveries. This may not be a problem for a PE who believes that psychological knowledge--rather than psychological skills--is the most valuable outcome of an undergraduate education in psychology. However this would be a true kiss of death for a MGAC from a research-oriented school that assumes successful graduate students are skillful researchers who are eager and able to discover new psychological knowledge. After all, the purpose of a doctoral dissertation is to make a unique contribution to the research literature of psychology, not to simply memorize what other psychologists have already discovered.
4 Declining Performance
Transcript #4 reflects a high overall GPA, but shows much stronger freshman/sophomore performance than junior/senior performance. This transcript says, "My owner is a strong starter but a slow finisher, or my owner is experiencing a decline in focus or motivation." This will concern both PEs and MGACs, neither of whom is likely to take a risk on someone who they perceive is "on the way down" when there are so many other applicants whose transcripts say, "My owner is on his/her way up."
Transcript #5 contains high grades, but is riddled with withdrawals from important and/or demanding classes (e.g., statistics and research methods). This transcript says, "My owner is a grade protector who believes that grades are more important than learning and who escapes from challenging situations as quickly as possible." A PE who is looking for someone to fill an unchallenging position (i.e., one with low pay and no room for advancement) would probably view you as an acceptable candidate. MGACs know that graduate school classes are significantly more challenging than undergraduate classes and will view you as a bad risk. Recent research by Landrum (2002, p. 2) indicates that "transcripts are highly valued in the graduate admissions process, and either a low GPA or low GRE will prompt a closer examination of a transcript." He also states that "although one or two withdrawals may not hurt an applicant's chances, withdrawals from particular courses or certain patterns of withdrawals may have a detrimental effect on graduate admission."
6 Delay in Taking Difficult Classes
Transcript #6 reveals that difficult classes (e.g., statistics and/or research methods) were taken much later than the department intended. This transcript says, "My owner tends to put off doing challenging things until the last minute or until they can no longer be avoided." Neither PEs or MGACs are likely to smile upon this combination of procrastination and avoidance of difficult tasks.
7 Easy Electives
Transcript #7 contains electives that appear to have been chosen because they were easy, rather than to acquire specific skills or knowledge. This transcript says, "My owner will chose the easy way out when given the choice." Most PEs seek applicants with a strong work ethic (i.e., those who will volunteer to perform difficult tasks and who are willing to come to work early, stay late, and work less desirable hours in order to complete them). They will not be interested in hiring you if they believe you will work hard only when it fits into your preferred personal schedule. An MGAC will also view your transcript with suspicion because a strong work ethic is absolutely essential for success in rigorous graduate programs. In fact, the most often requested characteristic that psychology graduate programs ask letter-of-recommendation authors to rate is how "motivated and hard working" the candidate is (Appleby, Keenan, & Mauer, 1999, p. 39). As gatekeepers for the profession of psychology, MGACs may also be unenthusiastic about producing a future colleague whose less-than-optimal behavior could be embarrassing to the profession.
8 Sporadic Academic Career
Transcript #8 reveals a sporadic academic career, with classes from a number of different schools, occasional gaps of several years between schools, and a combination of part-time and full-time class loads. Although there may be legitimate reasons for this erratic pattern, which you could explain in your personal statement or have one of your letter-of-recommendation authors address, this transcript says, "My owner's very complicated life will most likely continue in the future." Whatever has complicated his/her life (e.g., motivational, financial, health, or relationship problems) will also probably prevent this individual from being an employee a PE can count on to work for an extended period of time, or a graduate student a MGAC could assume would be able to concentrate his/her energies on a rigorous academic program long enough to complete it.
9 No Specialty
Transcript #9 shows the completion of the requirements for a bachelor's degree, but does not reflect an attempt to develop a pattern of knowledge and skills in a particular area of psychology (e.g., I/O psychology, neuroscience, or clinical psychology). This transcript says, "My owner lacks direction, is not goal oriented, simply wanted to earn a degree, or was unwilling to put forth the effort to develop a specialized set of knowledge and/or skills in a particular area of psychology." PEs would probably not notice this flaw, unless they are attempting to fill a position that requires a specialized set of knowledge and/or skills (e.g., a substance abuse counselor or a member of a human resources team). MGACs would be more skeptical of your application because you must apply to a particular specialization in graduate school (e.g., school, social, or clinical psychology), unlike undergraduate programs for which you can apply without declaring a specific major.
10 No Application of Knowledge and Skills
Transcript #10 contains no evidence of the application of psychological knowledge or skills (i.e., no independent research projects, internships, practica, or service learning). This transcript says, "My owner has acquired the necessary book learning in psychology, but has not yet put this knowledge to practical use. PEs are often disappointed by newly hired college graduates who are "too dependent on book knowledge" (Appleby, 2000, p. 17). Employers hire people for what they can do, not for what they know, so few will want to hire someone who has hundreds of good ideas, but no track record of putting these ideas to good use. MGACs would be skeptical of these applicants because they have not yet actually experienced the type of activity they say they want to engage in during their professional careers (e.g., working with autistic children, helping organizations increase the job satisfaction of their employees, or serving as a research scientist in search of the cure for Alzheimer's disease).
11 The Model Transcript
Transcript #11 reveals the opposite of what has been reflected in the previous 10 transcripts. This transcript says, "My owner has taken challenging courses, earned uniformly high grades with a minimum of withdrawals, has found himself/herself (as demonstrated by steadily increasing academic performance and the choice of relevant electives), has chosen both psychology classes and electives with the intention of developing the set of skills (in methods classes) and knowledge (in content classes) necessary for a particular career or graduate program, and has progressed toward this goal in a steady and reliable manner by first mastering the information presented in the classroom and then applying this knowledge in the laboratory, on the job, or in the community." A PE or the members of a MGAC will be very impressed with both this transcript and its owner.
What Can I Do to "Fix It"?
You do not need to be a rocket scientist to see that transcript #11 would speak most highly of you to a PE or an MGAC. Moreover, it is never too late to start creating your transcript in #11's image. If you are a first-semester freshman, you are in the enviable position of having total control of your entire transcript because it is currently completely blank. If you are an upperclassman and much of your transcript has already been written, you still have the time and opportunity to create the rest of its contents so it can begin to look more and more like transcript #11 and less and less like the other 10. Let us turn to some strategies you can use to help your transcript speak more positively about you.
The first strategy pertains to transcripts that reflect weak academic performance (e.g., #1, #2, #3, and #4). If some of your grades are less than impressive, you should consider repeating a few courses whose grades speak poorly of your abilities in crucial areas (e.g., that C minus in statistics). My institution allows students to retake up to 15 hours of course work and replace their old grades with their new ones. You may not relish the idea of spending an extra semester repeating classes, but when you compare the cost of an additional semester in college with the difference between a high- or low-paying job or an acceptance or a rejection letter from the graduate school of your choice, you will quickly realize that this may be one of the wisest investments you ever make.
Tell Your Story
The second strategy pertains to transcripts that reflect erratic or nonstandard enrollment patterns. If there are legitimate reasons for your withdrawals (#5), your postponed classes (#6), your unchallenging electives (#7), and/or your sporadic overall academic career (#8), these reasons must be explained. You may have had very plausible reasons for these patterns (e.g., financial problems, health challenges, the birth of children, or a spouse whose job required frequent relocations). One major purpose of personal statements and letters of recommendation is to enable PEs and MGACs to answer the question "why" when they are evaluating puzzling transcripts. If you believe your choice of electives may concern PEs or MGACs, you could use your personal statement to explain your strong interest in a particular area (e.g., I took several physical education classes to investigate the effects of exercise on stress) or to explain a extenuating circumstance (e.g., I was often forced to choose electives that fit my schedule because I was working full time to put myself through school). You could also ask one of your letter-of-recommendation authors to specifically address one of these issues, but be sure that this person is sufficiently familiar with your educational and personal history to give a compelling explanation (e.g., if you have had only one class from a professor, it would probably be unwise to ask him/her to comment on your spouse's work history). It is also unwise to use your personal statement to "blame" your past problems on other people or situations (Appleby, 2001). A straightforward, nondefensive explanation of the circumstances that produced the nonoptimal components of your transcript will be received best by PEs and MGACs.
The third strategy pertains to transcripts that do not reflect a pattern of knowledge and skills in a particular area of psychology (#9). The curriculum at some schools is designed to provide psychology majors with a broad introduction to the discipline, and this may make it difficult or impossible for a transcript to reflect a concentration in a particular area of psychology. However, electives from other departments can also demonstrate the development of a particular pattern of knowledge and skills. If you are planning to enter the mental health field, courses in social work and communications would be valuable. Business or management courses would be particularly appropriate if human resources is your goal. Biology and chemistry courses would provide strong supporting skills and knowledge if you plan to pursue behavioral neuroscience. Earning a minor in one of these areas would be even more impressive.
Document Your Experience
The fourth strategy pertains to transcripts that reflect no evidence of the application of psychological knowledge or skills (#10). This is where your supporting materials become crucial again. A letter of recommendation from your supervisor when you volunteered as an aid at your local psychiatric hospital or as a Big Brother or Big Sister could speak volumes about your ability to put your psychological knowledge and skills to work. A paragraph in your personal statement and a section in your resume that describe your responsibilities in your summer job as an administrative assistant in a human resources department also would be very impressive.
It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect transcript in the same way that there is no such thing as a perfect cover letter, sum, letter of recommendation, or personal statement. No document is perfect, and no person is perfect. The lesson to be learned from this is that you must create your transcript--and your other supporting documents--so that they portray you as a uniquely desirable job candidate or graduate school applicant. You can do this by: