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For most of university, I usually got around a ~3.5, with my GPA in my fourth year being around a 3.8.

However, during the first semester of my first year, I had some medical issues that made it really challenging to focus on school. Because of that, my GPA that semester was around a 1.7.

This one semester 4 years ago is completely destroying my GPA. Because of it my cumulative GPA is around a 3.35 instead of the 3.6 it should be.

I'm applying to PhD programs right now, and I'm afraid that most grad schools will take a quick look at the 3.35 and immediately dismiss my application because it's so low... I've done as much as I can to mitigate the effect of it, including doing quite well my fourth year, publishing a research paper and doing several research internships throughout university.

I was hoping for some advice on the best way to deal with this. I'll definitely mention this in my SOP, but I don't know if that will be sufficient. I'm also not sure how many details I'm expected to share about the medical issue. It's obviously very personal and I'd prefer to not share too much, but if I absolutely need to I guess that's okay...

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    Can I ask why you didn't take a hardship withdrawal at the time? – Azor Ahai Aug 9 '18 at 22:34
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    @AzorAhai I am not trying to put words in the OP's mouth, but many students don't know that is a real option or are afraid they won't be able to refund the tuition and fees that they paid out. – koverman47 Aug 9 '18 at 22:36
  • @koverman47 I know, that's why I asked the OP. – Azor Ahai Aug 9 '18 at 22:53
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I would think that the one semester is an anomaly. As such, since it was your first semester, it likely won't have much impact as long as you explain it adequately. People do get sick. Other people understand that. On the other hand some people do tend to party a lot and others may not be so understanding. But an explanation should suffice. If appropriate (it isn't always) be able to back up your statements with some evidence - say a recommendation from a doctor that the issue is in the past.

Some people won't even blink since your trend line is positive.

If you can also show the the poor grades early on didn't leave you with a hole in your education, all the better. That seems unlikely in this case, of course.

But of course, my analysis won't be universal. Some people will look harshly, but it should be rare most places.

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This is a common issue that we encounter in the Graduate School that I manage. The short answer is that your GPA is your GPA and you can't do anything about it. Here are a few of the techniques I've seen tried in applications:

  1. Describing mitigating circumstances in the personal statement.
  2. Calculating what I can only describe as "stratified GPAs" whereby the applicant calculates the GPA for subsets of subjects (often those directly related to the major). What they're trying to say is that my cumulative GPA is such-and-such, but if you focus on these subjects, my GPA is significantly better than the cumulative GPA.
  3. Arguing that the cumulative GPA is a poor summary that conceals significant trends in performance. This is a variation of the "stratified GPA" argument, but I call this the "mistakes of my youth" argument. The applicant is saying that we should excuse their performance in the early stages of their degree because the later performance is a much better gauge of their work.

The problem with these efforts is that the GPA is just one of the many pieces of evidence we require and applicants are often fixated on this number, which they cannot change anyway.

In your case, I believe that you should address this in your personal statement, but in a way that doesn't focus on excuses but on the work that you've done subsequently to mitigate its effects. In fact, that you've used this issue as a trigger to sublimate your performance speaks volumes of the maturity, forward thinking, initiative and diligence that I would be proud to have join our university. (You shouldn't consider this a general endorsement, of course, given that I don't have your complete application.)

Good luck to you.

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