Arachnophobia Tanked My GPA – What Now?

by Judge Josh on September 17, 2014

Hi Josh,
I’ve been reading your column for a few weeks now and must say I am impressed with your ability to combine brevity and artistic writing style. You strike me as the perfect person to query regarding my dilemma!

I will be a Senior at Idaho State University in the fall so I am gearing up for graduate school applications. I already visited and fell in love with my prospective program, and then proceeded to fall into a pretty serious depression because of the Just-Out-Of-Reach Syndrome.

I guess I need to back up and explain my first few years of college. I started a private school in Tennessee. My major was American Sign Language Interpreting and at the end of my first year I discovered I inherited my father’s congenital hearing loss. A job which requires good hearing and comprehension was not the right career for me. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life anymore, so I moved back to Idaho and went to Boise State University for a few semesters. I hated it and my motivation for school took a hit.

Also worsening at the same period was my arachnophobia. I’m not talking about, “Oh, I hate spiders! I scream when I see them!” … I’m talking paralyzing fear, sobbing mess, near-anaphylactic-shock reactions at even dime-sized spiders. I couldn’t go down the insecticide aisle at the grocery store, I was very wary of any movie I watched that could potentially have a spider, even inanimate plastic spider rings (the kind you see at Halloween) elicited a panicked reaction almost on the level of the Maury show.

I ended up with an infestation (really only 3 or 4 sightings a month) in my apartment, and encountered one in my bed. The only “safe” place that remained was the living room floor (phobic logic; figure that one out!) so I slept there for the remaining 6 months of my lease. Well, “slept” is not exactly what happened. I was taking a 2mg bar of Xanax and a Lunesta to sleep at night and during the day loaded up on more Xanax (usually .5-1mg at a time, but I would take a full bar if I encountered a spider and that would bring me back to “normal”).

Clearly, I had a problem. It was affecting every aspect of my life, including school. Most days, I didn’t have the motivation to leave my apartment (more phobic logic), and when I did it was to go sleep at my boyfriend’s place an hour away. I had no motivation for school work, and even if I did, I couldn’t focus on anything except my phobia. I lost a few friends who couldn’t stand my fixation and self-centered attitude.

I eventually looked into exposure therapy and as of August 2009, I consider myself a recovered arachnophobe. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s also one of my most-valued accomplishments. I’m a productive member of society again and it’s great. I got my motivation for school back and with more fervor than ever. But that couple semesters tanked my GPA. I had transferred with a good GPA (3.6 or 3.7), but in the spring of 2009 I was placed on academic probation (very new for a girl who had graduated high school as Valedictorian with a 4.1 cumulative GPA). My cumulative GPA at the beginning of SP2010 was a 3.2. And that’s not bad. Ordinarily, I would have no problem with a 3.2. However, my prospective program expects a high GPA and by my calculations, if I ace every course until I graduate, I can get no higher than a 3.5.

I took the GRE today and received 550 Verbal and 710 Quantitative, which puts me at or above the mean of accepted applicants at my desired program. I know I’m smart enough to get in. I definitely have enough passion and motivation to get in. But my GPA doesn’t show that.

My question is: what can I do to strengthen my portfolio so that the graduate program will understand that my GPA isn’t representative of my skills and passion as a student and life-long learner?

If you can’t get to my question, I’ll understand. I’m sure you get way too many emails to address! I just figure it’s worth a shot, and either way I’ll keep reading your column.
All the best,

Usually I “interrupt” these submissions with comments here and there, but Ashley’s story was far too fascinating for me to butt in, so I left all of the comments for the end here.

My best friend used to have a mild form of arachnophobia, but your situation is like nothing I’ve ever heard before.  It’s fascinating, to be honest, but at the same time terrifying that a phobia can rob so much from someone.

Anyway, you want to know if you have a fighting chance to get into grad school with a lower-than-expected GPA?  You – the high school valedictorian who overcame a crippling, life-controlling phobia, did well on her GRE and has a 3.2 GPA – wants to know if she can overcome a barrier?  I think you know the answer to that, Ashley. :)

Now, it may not be easy, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for you.  First, you definitely need to do all you can to bolster your portfolio outside the classroom (in addition to trying to ace all of those remaining courses).  Do research, internships, volunteering, and anything else you can to impress the admissions committee.  Just like anything else in life, if you’re short in one area, overcompensate in another.

Also, remember that there is likely an appeal process, wherein you may get a chance to explain yourself.  Tell them the truth.  It’s not like you drank away a couple of years of school like many people are prone to do.  You had a real, diagnosed disorder that profoundly affected your entire life, including school.  And then you buckled down and overcame that phobia, got back on track, got a great GRE score and did very well in the GPA department during the last several semesters of her college career.

That sounds like someone I would want as the poster child of my grad school, not someone I would deny the chance to prove herself.

What do you think?  Can Ashley overcome yet another barrier and get into grad school, or has the damage been done?


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