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I completed one term of a master's program before finding it was not what I expected, so I promptly quit. Now, I am sending fall application letters to other master's programs, for which I will be a paying student, but am uncertain how to mention this previous program, or whether that is even necessary. I do intent to send a transcript, as I want to transfer a few credits, however, should I mention this elsewhere in my application? Place a line on my CV? Mention this previous program in my application letters? Offer an explanation upfront describing why I left the program?

I found generally useful advice in Is transferring an option for an unhappy grad student?, but the answers do not explain what etiquette one should follow in reporting such a situation.

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

For your CV, don't focus on the fact that you quit the other program, but that you attended it for one term. As such, it would fit best in the section where you list your past education. Definitely send your transcript, because it shows that you achieved some things during that term, and will also count into the evaluation of your current knowledge.

The more delicate aspect is of course how to explain your quitting without full completion of the other program. However, I don't think that it will be a very critical aspect of your application. Such switches happen a lot, for various good reasons, and reviewers of your application will not automatically view it as negative if you don't push them in that direction. If you have good explanations for switching the program, you can put it in a motivation letter. For example, how, during the other program, you discovered that the program you are applying to know fits much better to your interests and skills. The CV wouldn't be be a good place for such reasons. If you can't offer an explanation that gives your application a bonus point, don't try to discuss around it in your application documents. But be prepared for questions in this direction in a potential interview.

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If you can't offer an explanation that gives your application a bonus point, don't try to discuss around it in your application documents. — I disagree; I would view the lack of any explanation as a red flag. –  JeffE Dec 29 '12 at 1:43
    
I agree that not mentioning it is best; frequently, such information will never come up, and it is not necessarily germane to your application. However, @JeffE demonstrates that not everyone feels this way. Perhaps it is a bit of a crapshoot. –  KDN Dec 31 '12 at 21:25
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The important thing here is that you realize that you do need to report this information to schools to which you will be applying, as it will matter in their deliberations over your application. That said, you do have some degree of latitude in finding the best way to inform the schools of this. If they have a "special notes" or "additional information" question in the application, that might be a good place to put such information. Otherwise, you would want to mention it somewhere in the cover letter (if you get to include one) or personal statement (if you don't).

However, this information should be provided by you; don't leave it for the people writing your recommendation letters to mention. That will just raise more red flags.

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Also, be careful how you talk about your previous program. The mere fact that you left another graduate program will already raise a red flag. Open criticism of your previous program, even with as mild a statement as "it was not what I expected", is likely to raise it further, even if the criticism is well-deserved. Nobody likes a whiner. –  JeffE Dec 26 '12 at 23:55
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Actually, I was just thinking of making a similar comment. The admissions committee will be worried that your leaving indicates a problem with you (maybe you are overly picky or perpetually dissatisfied, or have trouble completing projects) or raises the likelihood that no program will be a good match (maybe you have unrealistic ideas of what a master's program should be like, and you won't find any program suitable). So you should be careful not to say anything that could reinforce these ideas. –  Anonymous Mathematician Dec 27 '12 at 0:06
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