I'm applying for PhD programs at the moment in pure mathematics and was wondering if there was any sort of general wisdom regarding mentioning bad things that happened to you that have negatively impacted your grades. In the winter and spring quarters of my junior year my father was in and out of life threatening surgeries and it generated a lot of anxiety in my life that made it difficult to keep up with school the way I had in the past. He is thankfully doing alright now and is only getting better, but it was really touch and go for a while.

Before those terms I had taken a lot of graduate level courses in mathematics and consistently got As, but there was a dip during that period to B+s and Bs. The difficult thing for me is that, now that I'm not dealing with those things anymore, I don't really have time to show on my applications that it was a temporary issue for me. Is this sort of thing worth mentioning on my applications?

Personally I'm a very private person and the thought of mentioning it makes me a little nervous, but my application before this happened was quite unambiguously strong and I don't really know if it's appropriate to mention or if people would take it into consideration when looking at my transcripts.

  • 1
    I'd make this an answer, but I'm about to use someone else's words, and I can't remember whose. You don't have to explain. Just write, "Because of a difficult personal situation, now resolved, my grades declined slightly from [semester] to [semester]." You've given the two important facts: external event and now resolved. If anyone asks, you can explain more fully. – Bob Brown Nov 16 at 21:22
up vote 3 down vote accepted

In the graduate school I manage (UK Russell Group), you will need to meet specific requirements to even be considered for a place in the PhD programme. If your grades (or English proficiency or industry experience or any other prerequisite you choose to identify) do not meet this threshold, no amount of explanation in your personal statement will be satisfactory. This is the first hurdle.

If you are able to surmount this first hurdle, then no specific explanation is necessary to include in your personal statement about the reason you feel your grades were negatively impacted. You are only required to state that there were personal circumstances of a limited nature that were the cause of the dip in your performance. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Your grades have already been determined. An explanation will not change them. We will use your grades plus other evidence to rank you against all other applicants. Your reason will not be relevant in this ranking process. You will fall into one of three categories. If you are in the "clear accept" category or in the "clear reject" category, then your explanation is irrelevant to us. If you are in the "more information" category, when we will seek further information from you in the form of an interview, for example.

  2. We have no way of confirming that the explanation you provided in your personal statement is accurate.

  3. Your reasons may be highly private. If so, they will be difficult for you to write and difficult for us to read.

Please be clear about what I am saying. I am not saying that the reason is immaterial. Quite the contrary, in fact. What I am saying is that the reasons you declare will be considered in due course and we will invite you to respond and provide evidence if and when we require it. We will also specify the nature that evidence is to take.

Thus, in response to your question, I would advise the following:

  1. DO mention that your performance over a specific number of semesters was atypical and impacted your overall GPA negatively.

  2. DO mention that the reason for this atypical performance was of a significant personal nature.

  3. DO mention that this issue has since resolved.

  4. DO mention that you will be able to provide evidence should we require it.

  5. DO NOT provide us specific details.

An example of such a statement is

During two trimesters in academic year 2016/17, my academic performance was affected by a serious personal issue that has since resolved. This has negatively affected my overall GPA. The academic performance improved in the next academic year. I will be able to provide relevant evidence for your review upon request.

Finally, it is quite common for us to issue offers conditional on the receipt of further evidence. Not knowing your specific circumstances beyond the information you've already provided, it is likely that this will be the result that you will receive.

I wish you the best of luck.

  • Thank you. I am accepting this answer because I believe it is the course of action I will take. I would prefer to be rather vague as this issue is quite personal, but of course will be able to provide my evidence if I am asked. – RickiTickiTavi Nov 18 at 21:08

Mentioning a factor that caused your grades to drop would be appropriate in this situation. One (short) paragraph would suffice.

During Spring 2017 and Winter 2018 quarters, my father was hospitalized and needed several significant surgeries. Because I devoted my primary attention to my father's health, I was unable to commit my fullest efforts to school and my grades were slightly lower than I would have preferred them to be. My father has since recovered [from what I can deduce?] and I do not foresee any further issues with this matter. My grades outside of these aforementioned semesters indicate my strong capabilities in mathematics and I believe that I am an excellent candidate for the University of XYZ PhD program.

That is all you have to say really. Since you got a few B/B+ grades, your situation is not even that bad. I got a B+ in linear algebra and went on to write a master's thesis on the topic. A few B/B+ grades will not be too detrimental to your application, even if the admissions committee does not know your situation.

If your application came across my desk and had a paragraph such as the one I have included above, I would be entirely satisfied with your explanation and would not dwell on it further. (I honestly might not even dwell on your grades on those semesters in the first place). Moreover, by the time you entered the program in the fall, I would have likely forgotten that I even read that your father has suffered health issues. And even if I did remember, I would not bring it up ever. It is a student's private life and I would leave it at that.

  • 3
    More generally, the factors that might influence a decision are those that represent continuing issues. That isn't the case here, of course. – Buffy Nov 16 at 20:14

I suggest not to mention, they generally don't like straight A students as they may think that you are doing nothing but studying. Maybe only mention if you apply MIT, Berkeley or the sort of top 10 schools.

In my case, I have graduated from chemistry with 3.10/4.00 GPA, a very good score for my university in Turkey. Yet, this took 6 years and first 2 years were simply filled with N/A and FF grades, and the third year was a transition. I, usually, meet all the criteria for graduate applications but when I send my transcript they sometimes ask whether I took any courses more than once, since there are even courses with 4 or 6 times replacement in my transcript, only for that first period.

I simply answer that I needed to work more than 36 hours/week in those times due to the economic problems, which is the real thing. No one asked any solid proof for that, and it would be difficult since all of the works I have done were without a legal binding. The issue then closes at that point. If they don't trust your words and recommendation letters and scrutinize it to the point of demanding evidence for your father's unfortunate condition, you should try somewhere else.

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