I think you guys are all really stating what admission committees SHOULD be doing, by considering the upward trend of the undergrad grades, other accomplishments, and to see the whole picture before making the decision of admitting x or y. I agree, this should be done by the committees, but in the committee meetings, the pre-screening secretaries, in the real world, they try to do that and it is often difficult. With that said, a low undergrad GPA will inevitably doom your high tier grad school (phd, or even master's) dream, even if you do well on all other things. This is just the fact.
I'll run down how it works when a department accepts students and review applications:
1. the graduate secretary, and the graduate coordinators gather each and every application, put together the materials, file them and organize the data.
2. shortly after the application deadline is reached, the graduate secretary does the pre-screening by discarding applications that do not meet the minimum requirement to reduce the number of applications that they will actually review in more detail. What are the minimum requirement? undergrad GPA, GRE, and TOEFL for international applicants. Most of the schools keep the undergrad GPA threshold at 3.0, TOEFL at between 80 to 100 iBT, GRE of at least 1100 (competetive schools' GRE threshold is usually at 1250). If an application fails to meet any ONE of the 3 requirement, it is discarded, rejected before further review.
3. The pile of applications that have passed the pre-screening, will be sent to different professors of different area of focus in the department, depending on what the application specified as the intended area of focus.
4. the professors go through the remaining applications to see which students he wants as his RA, and recommend those students for admission to the graduate committee.
5. if there are still open spots available after the professors have made their RA selections, the department will offer TA (or no funding) to the selected applicants from the remaining application pool by holding a late round of graduate admission committee meeting. This is done twice if such department keeps a waiting list.
Now, from the above steps, it is easy to see that if your undergraduate GPA is low (below 3.0), your chance of getting into any decent graduate school is slim, because such a person would be cut from the very first pre-screening phase, simply because it is impossible for departments to review each and every application in detail, they must reduce the review to a realistic number before they start to actually review the applications. Take computer science for example, it is a popular field and for many schools they receive over 3000 applications for phd+ms (take maryland for example, this year they had around 2000 applications for MS and 1000 for phd. I don't know about MS's situation but I know that they sent out 100 offers for phd, expecting 30 to 40 of which to accept the offer. I know because I called and asked...and myself being one of the applicant and on their phd waiting list.)
I've posted my 2010 application result on the computer science section of the forum, but I will describe it again here: I also have very low undergraduate gpa, overall was 2.71, with my major gpa even lower...maybe 2.5? I am a computer science major, and I really didn't care about school much, I started to work hard from 3rd and 4th year after being suspended at the end of my 1st year due to gpa below 2.0...I started to work hard because I was doing an internship at a nearby medical school as a programmer, and the research that they did really intrigued me and motivated me to work hard and continue my education.
But the fact is that with a very bad foundation (what do you expect from a guy who got gpa of 1.9 from freshman year, and maybe around 2.3 from sophomore year? this indicates I didn't learn much and my knowledge/practice was very limited), it is very difficult to do well for the later years, I had to re-learn my 1st and 2nd year material and really change my life style. It wasn't easy, and I averaged maybe 3.3 or 3.5 for my 3rd and 4th year, but when you average those all together, it was still just a lowly 2.71 cumulatively.
I didn't want to apply to schools at that point, cuz I think nobody will accept me anyway. my own school ended up accepted me into their MS program with probation: I had to keep my gpa above 3.0 or I'm out. I managed to graduate from it with 3.89 GPA, and an graduate student award that was given to 2 students out of the entire department.
I started my 2nd MS to try to boost my application further, I am about to graduate from my 2nd MS this May with GPA of 3.56, with 1 journal and 4 conference publications. So I applied to PhD programs a few months ago. Guess what, I got accepted into just Stony Brook, rejected from 10+ other schools, wait listed on 3, and no-reply from 5 (probably will turn into rejections eventually).
by the way my GRE is 770 math 630 verbal 4.5 writing.
I've done everythign else right. But my undergraduate 2.71 is more of a problem than any of you can imagine. as nice as you guys are, saying there can be any reason that causes a nice boy to have a low undergrad GPA, the grad committees don't care. There are thousdans and thousands of applications from around the world, VERY MANY of them are good students through out their lives, consistent through out their academic years, no mistakes ever made. The graduate schools have more than enough of those perfect students to choose from, and the sad truth is they will like those guys and pick them...and for people like me, we really are just stuck being wait listed, or admitted to ok schools, with our undergrad gpa haunting us the entire life. The depatments don't have the time to understand why we messed up at the beginning, nor do they care, they are like a business that they admit students who demonstrate consistency and potential for success, and they usually get more than enough of those applicants since people from around the world apply each year.
undergrad gpa, like the GRE and TOEFL, is the pre-screening selection criteria. They don't look down at you, they don't think anything of you, they just discard you if you don't score higher than their minimum threshold hold simply because they cannot and are not able to physically review the initial 3000+ amount of applications that come in, and they have to have a way to reduce this number down to a realistic sized pool, and the best way they can think of is undergrad gpa/gre/toefl combination. I can't say that this is wrong, but this is just the sad truth that if we mess up undergrad, we seriously need to put 100x the work and try to get lucky..