Wednesday, January 20, 2010

FSP231: INTRO TRANSCR RDG I

Like many of you who are university professors in the US, I have recently been poring over grad applications. These applications typically include various forms containing data of varying usefulness, a cover letter or statement of interest/purpose, the infamous Letters of Reference, and transcripts.

Some years I read only a subset of applications to my department, some years I read every application to my department, and some years I also read applications to other departments at my university. I am fortunate that this year is a subset-of-applications year.

Nevertheless, I've managed to gaze at quite a few applications recently, and the fun will surely continue for a while yet.

Transcripts are interesting to read because you can see a student's evolution of interests. Did they take an intro course in Science their very first term and immediately dive into the major? Did they meander around for a year or so, sampling a wide variety of courses before focusing? To me, it doesn't matter if a student has known since they were 3 that they wanted to be a Scientist or whether they discovered this late in their undergraduate studies; it's just interesting to see the academic trail as indicated by course titles over the years.

In yesterday's post, I mentioned something about the unusual courses that a character in a novel was taking at a large midwestern university. In fact, it is not unusual to see a few strangely titled classes scattered about an undergraduate transcript. Presumably some of these courses were taken to fulfill a graduate requirement or to fill out a course load with a 1-2 credit course that fits a busy schedule and would not be too onerous.

I am not surprised or alarmed to see Aerobics or Yoga or Introduction to Badminton or even INTRO BONSAI on a transcript. I think it is a little strange, though, when there is an actual grade for this type of course. Many universities evaluate this type of course as pass/fail or satisfactory/not-satisfactory; I suppose at others the students can choose whether to get a grade or a pass/fail score.

What does it mean if a student gets a C in Kundalini Yoga or Intermediate Ping Pong or Self-Awareness? They are not flexible, have poor hand-eye coordination, and/or are oblivious? More likely, the student put little time or effort into a low-credit course that was just an additional thing they had to do. Even so, I personally would have taken Building Self-Esteem as a pass/fail course so that I didn't have to feel bad about getting a B or a C. It would be devastating to fail a self-esteem course.

I prefer transcripts that have the entire course name typed out or that use only unambiguous abbreviations: ADV INT IND LIT INTRO PRINC LIN ALG DIFF EQ ENV MOD EUR. Some less ambiguous abbreviations can be figured out from context or from the course designation; i.e., whether COMP is Computer or Composition or Composers, or whether DIG is Digital or Digestive.

The strangest abbreviations tend to be for specialized seminars or upper level courses with technical names. For example: CONC FUND MAGN. Surely it is Concentrated Fundamentals of Magnesium. Or Magnolias..? Or something.

And what about this?: RESI PHYS. Residues of Physics? Residences of Physicians? Resilient Physiognomy?

It doesn't really matter. The names of the essential courses (for the grad app) are typically unambiguous, and if there are some unusual specialized courses or seminars that are relevant, the applicant or reference letter writers typically highlight them in their prose. The strange course names provide a bit of entertainment to a transcript-reader, as I hope the course itself did to the student when they took it.

40 comments:

human said...

I actually got a C in Racquetball. Like you, I assumed that as long as I showed up to class and put in a decent amount of effort, it couldn't be that hard to get an A. Not so! The final exam required us to serve the ball correctly and return it to ourselves ten times in a row. I couldn't manage more than four. This is a lot harder than playing with another beginner, because when someone else is hitting the ball, you have the time to figure out where they might hit it and move around to get in position. If you're playing with yourself, it's twice as hard.

I was kind of pissed about the grade. Fortunately it didn't seem to affect my admission to graduate school.

a grad student said...

A professor who was in the admissions committee when I applied to my grad school told me a couple years ago that the one thing that popped out at him from my transcript was that the only B in my transcript was in Tennis. Yes, I got a B in Tennis. My backhand sucks, ok?

The entire committee apparently had a huge laugh-fest about my one B among dozens of A's in various physics and math courses.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I don't even look at this transcript shit. I take a look at the GPA to make sure it is at least a B average, and then give much greater weight to the GREs, particularly the verbal score.

Anonymous said...

Greetings,

As a prof at a school with no graduate program, it would be enormously helpful if you could say a few words about what you look for in a Statement of Purpose, so I could point my students to your advice as someone who actually has decision-making authority. They don't seem to believe me when I tell them no one wants to read an essay that starts "I've loved physics ever since I was a little kid". :-)

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm sure this is TMI, but: I actually took intro badminton, and later advanced badminton, and got a B. The grade was based on insanely difficult drills (that most students cheated on) and equally insanely difficult written exams. Pass/fail wasn't an option, but the grades did not count toward our GPAs.

Now that I think about it, the cheating on the drills (reporting preposterous number of hits within a minute) was very similar to the cheating I witnessed in organic chemistry lab (reporting preposterous yield of reactions).

Si said...

One summer in grad school (at the M.A. level), I took a course in weight training. It was only offered as a graded course. I ended up with an A-, despite the fact that I met all the requirements for an A. However, I was the only female in the class, and I could tell I was cramping the instructor's preferred teaching style, so I figured that "for a girl," an A- was pretty good. In retrospect, I wish I had gone to talk to him about it, because I feel like a complete idiot every time I send out that transcript: "She got an A- in Weight Training? What, she can't bench press properly?" or, your conclusion, "What, she didn't put her best effort into it?"

plam said...

I kind of have the converse to grades for phys ed classes: in my final year, I took advanced complex analysis pass/fail. 100% assignments. The prof was kind of confused about why I seemed to arbitrarily stop doing each of the assignments.

Anonymous said...

I still occasionally feel a twinge of anger about the B- in my first year in "Intro to Studio Art". I will admit my artistic talents are negligible, but thought in a course designed as a "distribution requirement", hard work ought to merit a B+.

My B+ in my required religion class was a bit less traumatic, as I saw that one coming.

Mark P

a physicist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This post is utterly hilarious.

Average Professor said...

At my undergrad institution, phys ed courses were a general ed requirement. The closest I ever came to a 4.0 as an undergrad, I got an A in every course but my 1-credit archery class.

female Science Professor said...

Anon 7:15, there are many resources available online about this. I've discussed it a bit as well. There are some examples of what not to write (see late 2008 posts), and also this post with more information.

Patchi said...

My college adviser told me grad schools considered a "pass" grade as a C, so he told me to ask for a letter grade. Not sure this is true, but the As I got in Flamenco did help raise the Bs I got for organic chem.

amy said...

Man, I already failed the first test in FSP 231 -- I stared at the title of this blog post for 10 minutes before I finally realized what it means!

Kevin said...

All classes that have grades should have grades based on performance, not effort. My C in fencing was well-deserved, despite the effort I put in.

Someone expecting a B+ just because they put in effort (without success) is being unreasonable---pandering to such students just results in grade inflation. I will fail a student (repeatedly) who cannot or will not do the work required to pass a course. I expect my colleagues to do the same, no matter what subject they are teaching.

As for what we look for in personal statements: coherent statements of research interests that match what we do and lots of evidence of research capability (not necessarily in our field, but close enough to be relevant). One or two sentences on motivation to do this particular program is ok, but a page of childhood reminiscence is just an irritant.

Erin said...

I double majored in pretty different fields, then mentioned nothing about my history degree in my grad school applications because it didn't seem relevant. Now I wonder what the admissions committees made of my advanced seminar on pirates and my Hinduism class.

Ms.PhD said...

LOL, this is so true. CPP's comment explains how I got into grad school! And why I didn't get into more schools! I finally get it now. Thanks, CPP! You represent the nameless, faceless professor of my dreams and nightmares.

FWIW, I actually used my complete lack of coordination to help decide which college to attend. I ruled out anywhere that had phys ed requirements that would be included in the GPA. I knew I would be in BIG TROUBLE.

My question for you FSP- given two students with identical GPAs and only slightly different transcripts, do you actually give weight to the apparently personality revealed by the random elective courses?

Personally, I would much rather have someone well-rounded, but my school required a fairly broad selection of non-science courses from various departments, so I think that helped us feel justified in exploring farther off the grid than we would have otherwise.

female Science Professor said...

I give no weight whatsoever to random elective courses. There is no way to tell if elective course selection indicates anything at all about an applicant's personality vs. what courses happened to fit their schedule and not be filled when they registered etc., and even if the selection is deeply meaningful to the student, it's not relevant to my evaluation.

Cloud said...

Mark P- should a humanities major who takes a science class that is required by the distribution requirements be given a B+ for effort?

I don't think so. Which is why I don't quibble about the B I got in French. Actually, I thought I was lucky to pull a B. Sure, I tried hard, but my listening comprehension sucked. If the future of the world depended on my ability to understand spoken French, the world would be in a lot of trouble.

cookingwithsolvents said...

I agree w/ FSP. . .GPA in your major is really the telling # when applying to grad school (including your subject GRE and verbal GRE section). A bad class here or there isn't the end of the world (e.g. a B-/C+ in pchem when you had another chem class, 2 other high-level electives, and a filler isn't a dealbreaker)

Past success may not guarantee future but there sure is a correlation. . .

p.s. I took classical guitar and it was awesome!

Anonymous said...

When I applied for Grad school, I never really mentioned why I chose that school or anything relating to the projects that they were offering. I did however, mention what I intend to do after grad school. Though the fact that I also did my undergrad there, albeit a different department, might have helped a little.

Though now that you've mentioned I do wonder what they saw in me, despite my lack of referencing

unlikelygrad said...

I'm very curious why people like CPP put so much weight on the verbal GRE for grad school admissions? (I assume you are all science professors.)

I got a very high Verbal GRE score (99th %ile), and I'm wondering now if this was why I got into as many grad schools as I did.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The math GRE is much easier than the verbal, and also is much easier to improve the score by studying. The verbal GRE gives you a very good sense for how much time and effort over an entire lifetime the applicant has spent reading and writing in English, and how effective they are going to be at reading and writing and conversing in English during grad school. This is a fucktillion times more important than fucking trigonometry and algebra.

unlikelygrad said...

CPP:

That makes a lot of sense. So, out of curiosity, what do you think of the Analytical Writing score? I did much poorer on that section (5/6).

Frankly, I would have much rather taken the test back when they had the logic section or whatever that was. I looked at my husband's study materials when he was applying to master's programs (early '90's) and the logic stuff looked like fun.

female Science Professor said...

I've been meaning to write about the Analytical/Writing GRE; it would be good to hear various opinions about it. Stay tuned.

Anonymous said...

FSP: Why are all of your readers bad at athletics? Why is everyone doing so poorly in required athletic courses? Is this the result of our high schools not preparing our children for physical competition?

As an accomplished athlete and scientist, I have to say it needs to be REQUIRED to take courses in athletics not only in undergrad, but in grad school (and professors too). Being in good physical shape is critical for accomplishing good science. Think about it, how much better would science be if everyone was in shape?

Also CPP, the Verbal GRE is stupid, and when I say stupid.....I mean VERY STUPID.

EliRabett said...

Run it by me again why physics majors need to take courses in physical education.

YAMP said...

As an applied math prof, I have to agree with CPP (no matter how much it pains me). Most of my grad students work on interdisciplinary problems with people all over the university and if they cannot communicate they will be sunk. Pretty much any serious grad applicant in the sciences can put their nose in a book and learn whatever they need to do the quantitative part of their research. However, if they cannot write, listen and explain then there is really no hope for them.

Just beware the 99+ percentile applicants from Mongolia and such places ...

anon at 05:42:00 PM would agree with james Watson who famously said:

"When you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them."

However, it was not for the reasons you suggest. He felt they were too "happy" or "content" to be properly driven to scientific excellence.

Doctor Pion said...

Do you get all of those materials in one file, with letters etc scanned to pdf, or do you still do it all with larger folders stuffed with paper?

Anonymous said...

YAMP @ 7:29 PM; This is Anon @ 5:42: Don't put words in my mouth. I just believe the endorphins created during exercise always helps create a positive and productive attitude for doing good science.

Also, Elirabett: physics majors MUST take physical education because it will force them to AT LEAST get some exercise.

I can guaranteed I am the most fit person that reads FSP.

Terminal Degree said...

At the university where I teach, undergraduate students are required to take two 1-credit "personal development" courses. Classes such as cycling, fitness walking, yoga/pilates, and even bowling all fall into this category. Pass/fail isn't an option; students must take the class for a grade.

Personally, one of the big factors in my choice of a college was the lack of a physical education requirement.

Kevin said...

We get our application materials on-line as a bunch of PDF files hidden behind a database interface. Some are scanned, and some are generated by web-entry by applicants or recommenders. The system was built in-house and is actually pretty good. There is an annual cycle for improvements, and they ask the faculty for suggestions about what to improve. Much nicer than the commercially-built piece of crap used for student records.

We pay attention to all three GRE scores, though they don't have as much weight as evidence of research does. We rarely accept a math GRE lower than 700 or a verbal lower than 600. Although the verbal GRE is not a very good test, the math GRE is worse---it has way too low a ceiling to differentiate between grad school applicants in computational fields. The writing scores tend to be a bit random, but they do seem to be ok predictors of who will be able to write a thesis.
(Unfortunately, because the application information is thrown away every year, we can't really get the historical data we need to quantify that.)

Kevin said...

"I have to say it needs to be REQUIRED to take courses in athletics not only in undergrad, but in grad school (and professors too). Being in good physical shape is critical for accomplishing good science."

Taking athletics has little to do with fitness. Sports are a very inefficient way to stay fit, and very likely to be dropped as time wasters. You're better off bicycle commuting, which keeps you exercising even when you don't feel like it or don't have time.

unlikelygrad said...

Kevin: bravo. I personally am not one who enjoys "fitness" activities. I do, however, enjoy walking, biking, and hiking. I do not consider this "fitness"--I consider the former two activities alternatives to driving a car and the latter to be just plain fun.

I have gotten slack as a grad student (it's just a bit too far for me to walk to/from school, since I get home late at night), but before I started here I was walking 20+ miles a week...all of it on the way to/from school, doing errands, etc.

I love walking places because it gives me time to mull over things happening in my life, think about the journals I read, etc. My walks are when my brain gathers a lot of assorted trivia and melds it into a cohesive whole. I doubt I could get the same effect while working out in a crowded gym or playing a team sport.

Ummm, FSP, sorry for dragging this thread so far off topic. I don't know if this is coincidence or not, but the transcripts from the schools where I did my undergrad (yes, plural) back in the late '80's/early '90's are of the short, cryptic type (CLS MCHNC/THRM), while the transcript for my post-bac work (last 2 years) is nice and readable. Maybe the old systems, where everything is/was typed on a typewriter, are the culprits?

t said...

anon at 8:58 (guaranteed most fit) I want your stats. I'm a bicycle-riding powerlifting cross-country skiing mathematical madwoman. This is partly due to the karate, weight training, and Bikram yoga I was forced to take in order to graduate. Are you sure you're most fit?

(My other favorite classes at my engineering school were Japanese Art History, Supreme Court, and something like Race and Memory: the Asian-American experience through Literature, Film, and Technology...?! Yes, we had broad distribution requirements.)

Anonymous said...

"YAMP @ 7:29 PM; This is Anon @ 5:42: Don't put words in my mouth. I just believe the endorphins created during exercise always helps create a positive and productive attitude for doing good science."

Are you aware that approximately 25% of the population doesn't get endorphins from exercise? There is no reason to assume that because exercise makes you happy and productive that it makes everyone happy and productive. And, yes, I am in good shape. I simply find other reasons to exercise than endorphins

Regarding the transcripts, I teach at a not-so-small liberal arts college and I have to say that it goes too far in the interest of breadth. Because students are forced to take so many different arts/social sciences/humanities/etc courses for breadth, we have to sacrifice breadth within the sciences. It frustrates me that TPTB see it as more important for a physicist to take any random humanities course (and, yes, the list is very very random) rather than any biology (which they are never made to take). They have also put a (very low) cap on the number of courses permitted within your own major. It is really quite bizarre.

Anonymous said...

I don't always get endorphins from exercise (I'm a marathoner and have raced competitively in triathlons and bicycle road races). Sometimes you hit the wall or bonk and that is definitely not a good feeling.

Even though it's a good idea to be fit and healthy rather than sedantary, I don't think it should be MANDATORY for a university degree! It is a lifestyle choice. Otherwise anyt other lifestyle choice that's 'a good idea to do' would also have to be made mandatory - like requiring people to not-smoke as part of their degree requirements. yes it's a good idea to be a non-smoker, but how is it relevant to getting an academic degree?

Anonymous said...

I took a class on analytical geometry and calculus. My transcript reads ANAL GEO CALC.

Harvestar said...

My college required 3 credits in physical education. Many people in the honors program took ballroom dancing. I took ice skating. And these courses were all graded. I even took honors ice skating. (we had to have 7 honors credits a year and with most classes as 3 credits, that extra credit was hard to find)

Lizgb said...

ha! A good friend of mine (who happens to be a gay man) was looking at my course list and noticed I was taking "GENETIC ANAL" (genetic analysis). He laughed for about a year.

Also, random weird courses are what makes undergrad college great. I would a much less happy person if I'd never gotten to write a 12 page essay on representations of sexuality in Star Trek for my "Gender, Culture and Representation" course.