I recently graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics. I'm now applying to research internships and some of these need recommendation letters from faculty.

I did very badly during the first 2 years at college (having scored around 6/10 (=2.4/4) GPA in my courses until the end of my 4th semester) -- however, I learnt from my mistakes and became much more disciplined in my 3rd year, when I scored an average of 8/10 (3.2/4). At the end of 3 years, I had to graduate with a sub-3 CGPA of 6.88/10 (2.75/4).

I did really well on research projects and other quantitative projects at college, which is one reason why I've found professors to recommend me. I understand that my poor GPA will probably put me in a bad position, but what's done is done and I digress. One of my possible references asked me to draft a letter for him and that he will make changes as necessary before sending it in.

My question is: should I ask my references to talk about my poor grades (something along the lines of "While X does not have impressive scores in his undergraduate degree, it can be clearly seen from his transcripts that he picked up pace and discipline during his final year. I believe that X has taken home the importance of hardwork after a few hiccups in his academic life".)

Even if the above phrasing doesn't seem good, in general, is it a good idea to talk about your bad grades in a recommendation letter? Or is it simply better to let this go and concentrate on my strengths?

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    The idea of the professor asking you to draft the letter is rather controversial, see academia.stackexchange.com/questions/29041/…. – Nate Eldredge Sep 25 at 5:45
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    Yes, I understand. That said, it's pretty commonplace where I live (India) and in any case the professor is the one who'll be sending it in at the final stage after making the changes he feels necessary. – WorldGov Sep 25 at 5:50
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    The bad grades are there on the transcript - something to address them (since they will stand out from other applicants) seems prudent. – Jon Custer Sep 25 at 14:19
up vote 26 down vote accepted

It really depends on how the professor knows you.

If the professor only knew you "after the change", the letter might say "I am aware of student's relatively low grades during the first few years, but by the time of my class, they were a top-performing student", that kind of thing.

If the professor has known you for years, it might be appropriate to comment on having observed this change, and expressing confidence that you can handle the role in question despite the low cumulative QPA.

Is it a good idea to talk about your bad grades in a recommendation letter?

If not asked about it, why shed the light on it?

Your professor can talk about your points of strength and your efforts through the years. No real need to talk about everything in details.

If you really feel that the grades by them self are subject to questioning, it will be a good idea to mention them in that way but, in my opinion, everybody knows that the grades alone aren't really a factor and in fact, your grades getting better time after time is the biggest factor.

I would suggest, if you really need to talk about it, to say something among these lines:

X has shown big improvement through his undergraduate studies which proves, with no doubt, that he is capable of handling bigger projects.

I am not a native English speaker so this might need some improvement.

Bottom line is to focus on the good side without really mentioning the bad/down side that got you there.

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    "Why shed the light on it" --> because the reciever of the letter will see the bad grades and thinks the opinion of the professor is not well justified or even worse it's a standard letter which is used for every student. – OBu Sep 25 at 13:11
  • The receiver will also see the improvement. This is why focusing on the important side is better in my opinion – Paul Karam Sep 25 at 13:20
  • The suggestion to focus on the positive is very good; but the initial part of this answer, which seems tantamount to advising against mentioning it at all, is imprudent in my view. As OBu says, the recipient will see the poorer grades, and if they are not mentioned at all will likely become suspicious of the letter’s relevance. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 26 at 9:44
  • Maybe the way I said it isn't what I meant 100% (as I said, my English isn't perfect). All what I thought about is that : "the recipient will see the poorer grades" -> "talking about them might seem like a defensive stance without a sure attack from the recipient" -> "don't talk about the grades themselfs" -> "however, mention the improvements that OP did (according to the grades)". All of the idea is because the recipient will also see the good grades and will get what the improvement means.. hopefully this made myself more clear – Paul Karam Sep 26 at 10:51

It depends on whether or not they can speak to the "story".

Your letter of recommendation is an opportunity to turn your CV into a narrative, and if part of that narrative is your grades suffered early on for one reason or another, and that's been resolved, it's potentially worth talking about. But not if it's just "Joe used to be bad at this, and he's gotten better." They should be able to talk about your growth, how that came about, your development in new directions, etc.

TL;DR: Yes, but only if they can do it well.

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