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I am currently a third year undergraduate at a good university studying computer science. I am planning to apply to top graduate schools when I finish my undergrad and I need a bit of advice.

In the first two and half (5 semesters) of my studies, I took the most challenging CS/Math courses in my university and did very well in them (GPA 4.11/4.30). I also joined two research groups and have 2 publications where I am the first author, published in reputable journals. I also have a very good relationship with my 2 research advisors.

Now in my sixth semester, I decided to go on an exchange semester and things just started crumbling. First of all, I couldn't integrate well in the culture and I was left very lonely with no new friends in the area. My Girlfriend of 5 years broke up with me, my mother got into a car accident which affected her health, and I started taking depression medication due to that. I also gained a lot of weight which lead to some health problems. Needless to say, this term is coming to an end and I can't wait to leave this place. I am going to probably fail 2/4 courses, and in the remaining ones, I will barely pass. I am expecting a 2.0 GPA at best.

Now I know this won't go unnoticed by graduate school admissions. I am just wondering what steps can I take as of now to document all of this so that I can justify the poor performance in the exchange semester during my graduate application?

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    I can't imagine anyone would ask you for proof that your girlfriend broke up with you... these things are usually just believed (unless someone has a concrete reason to think you are lying about them). – nengel Apr 8 '18 at 4:31
  • I have a friend that had similar problems when in Erasmus in Germany. He never disclosed his problems abroad and got admitted in one of the most competitive PhD program in our country. Today he is almost finishing his PhD with several papers published in high IF journals. Hang in there, things will get better for you. The experience you are having is important and is not quantified by a GPA, try to hold the best of this. Good luck! – The Doctor Apr 8 '18 at 6:15
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Your transcript should be all you need. Presumably, your transcript shows that you studied at a foreign university, and that things did not go well. If you are back to 100% next semester, it will be pretty obvious that the problems were related to studying abroad. You may then want to write something in your statement of purpose when you apply to assure them that attending grad school won't cause problems similar to what happened when you were studying abroad. This should be an easy sell, especially if the exchange program was in a very far away country and the grad program is in your home country/region.

At any rate, graduate school admissions people certainly do not want to see documentation about your health or personal relationships. They just need a believable reason for why that one semester doesn't indicate you are unfit for grad school, and the transcript showing you studied abroad far away and had some problems should address that. The only place you may run into problems is if your application is automatically filtered out before it reaches the committee -- but no way to avoid that.

The question posed in the title is a bit more challenging. You are able to attribute your difficulties to having studied abroad. For students who suffer mental health challenges at their home universities, graduate school admission is more challenging. Even in this case, however, I do not think they are interested in seeing medical or other documentation.

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I'm sorry to hear about the difficulties you experienced while you studied abroad. You're right- grad programs will notice this, so I think it's important to acknowledge it, but find a way to put a positive spin on it/use it as a way to showcase your other strengths as an applicant. I don't think providing documentation of any sort will come into play though.

Assuming you have personal statements to submit, I would find a relevant way to include that you studied abroad because (insert a good reason here), but that you struggled during your time there for a number of reasons, including not integrating well with the culture. Then, turn it into a positive by saying what you took from the experience (maybe that you just discovered something new about yourself, you learned a new language, interesting coursework, etc), and talk about how you've bounced back (you're doing your best to improve your final grades, you now have a much clearer idea of what you want/need from an academic program, what you need to do excel, etc...)

The trick (and difficult part) is to do this in just a few sentences, and then quickly move on so it's not the focus of your personal statement.

Ultimately, I think the message you need to get across to them is "I know I took a stumble, but look how I came out much stronger and better prepared for your graduate program!"

One last thing I'd add: if any of your references writing your recommendation letters are privy to what you've gone through, you could always discuss your concerns with them. Now, you can't specify to them what to write in their letters since they're confidential, but in sharing your concerns with maybe just one of them, they might take it upon themselves to corroborate what you say in your personal statement by commenting on how you're an excellent student who - yes, took a stumble - but is still a great investment because of (insert strengths here). Of course, I would only discuss your concerns with your professor if he/she is someone you trust/are comfortable with.

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Having experienced health/family/personal problems of any kind doesn't give one a magical get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to grad school applications, so in this sense, documentation is irrelevant.

The area where documentation can be helpful is when one is trying to get reasonable accommodations due to a health condition that affects one's studies (in the UK I think the term is reasonable adjustments). If you are about to leave your current geographical area, and you have consulted a medical or mental health professional where you are now, you might want to sign a release so that those recent records can be transferred to your primary provider, who would be the ideal person to hold a repository of all your records.

(Side note, some SSRIs have less side-effect weight gain than others, so you might want to talk with your doctor about possibly switching your SSRI to one with a lower side-effect profile.)

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    I agree with your answer--including the wisdom about transferring health records--but your first sentence comes off as a bit harsh. – cactus_pardner Apr 8 '18 at 22:19
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    @aparente001 I am not looking for a "get-out-of-jail-free card". I just think that I had circumstances which affected my true performance throughout the semester and that my performance in this semester doesn't reflect my true performance. I just don't want them to get an idea of "He went on exchange, neglected all his studies, had parties, and then failed" image, which is what most exchange students did in my school. – Coconut Apr 9 '18 at 1:57
  • @Coconut - When you sit down to write your grad applications, you can write a short explanatory statement about the bad semester if you want to (this has already been covered on this site); however, students do not always choose to disclose a dx and the need for specific accommodations until after the admissions process is complete. At any rate, even if you do disclose in your application, at that stage documentation would be superfluous. Now, there is another possible way of dealing with the blip semester -- – aparente001 Apr 9 '18 at 13:13
  • -- that is, through the letter of recommendation. A recommender who knows you well could say, for example, "Candidate's poor grades during exchange semester [year] are not an accurate representation of her/his general performance" and just leave it at that; or (and this is something you get to decide, and indicate to your referrer) this person could add something like: "Candidate experienced family/personal/health problems during the semester [year] abroad." // You may find it helpful to read about 504 accommodations in higher education. – aparente001 Apr 9 '18 at 13:17
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Just suck it up. Talking about depression will make it worse...not only did you underperform, but you make excuses.

This is not a troll. I have underperformed on all kinds of things in my life. But once you are an adult nobody wants to hear about your excuses. Get it done or don't get it done. But just deal with it when you don't. Life goes on and there are a million second chances. But don't ask for special forgiveness.

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    Having a bad day? – Coconut Apr 9 '18 at 1:58
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    I agree that people are quick to blame mental health or other outside factors rather than their own underperformance. That said, admission committees are interested in context. Certainly one can't explain away their entire undergraduate record with such claims, but in this case only a single semester is bad, and there was an obvious, temporary, and unlikely-to-recur cause for the problem, so I think it is altogether reasonable to provide such context for the committee in cases such as this. – cag51 Apr 9 '18 at 2:21
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    This is not constructive advice, and speaking as an academic who is involved in monitoring the progress and well-being of graduate students in my department, I would hate to feel that any of them felt unable to disclose personal difficulty for fear of seeming to "make excuses" – Yemon Choi Apr 9 '18 at 4:43

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