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This is a follow-up to my previous question. I'm currently in the process of applying for PhD programs. I finished college with a poor GPA 10 years ago; since then, I have become a successful scientist in industry.

Some of the applications have an interesting question, on the lines of - "does your academic transcript properly represent your abilities" - which I assume is a space to explain why a poor GPA happened in one's past and how one has moved on.

My top choice program, however, has no such question. I did email a prospective guide and had a quick phone call with him about my interests, where he agreed we would be a good match and asked me to add his name in my essays so my application would be routed to him.

I've read several articles on how a statement of purpose should highlight only one's strengths and not gloss over poor performances (especially since they were 10+ years ago), but I'm concerned that without an explanation my application wouldn't be given a second glance. In the best case, I would be invited for an interview and at that point I could explain what went wrong and how I've moved on from it.

So what would be my best bet here?

  • Mention nothing in my essays, focus only on the positives and hope that the other facets of my application would intrigue the adcom to a point where they'd ask me for an interview?
  • Add a short blurb as to what went wrong, but without going into the gory details?
  • Go all in and explain everything?
  • Have you looked at the many similar questions posted before this one on Academia.SE? What did you find, and how does your question differ from them? – Bryan Krause Dec 28 '18 at 17:36
  • @BryanKrause I did, and I'm seeing contradicting advice, for instance academia.stackexchange.com/questions/61213/… says to not mention anything negative in the SOP, while academia.stackexchange.com/questions/60238/… advises to mention it. Of course, situations are different and there's no one-cut answer to every situation, so I thought I'd ask for advice here – user81120 Dec 28 '18 at 20:14
  • Clearly they are different circumstances: in the first one there is an isolated poor grade with no associated hardship or explanations (just excuses), in the second there is a period of mental illness that is overcome. See also academia.stackexchange.com/questions/5163/… academia.stackexchange.com/questions/32112/… and others – Bryan Krause Dec 28 '18 at 20:28
  • My point is really that you are just going to get rehashed answers to those other questions, and this one should really be closed as a duplicate of whichever one you find fits your situation the best. StackExchange is not meant for individualized Q&A, it's meant for generalized questions that can produce broadly helpful answers. – Bryan Krause Dec 28 '18 at 20:29
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Explain poor grades in your statement of purpose/essay, which is where evaluators are going to look for it. These statements can be up to a couple of pages long, so you can (and should) spare a paragraph (or two, if necessary) to the topic. The explanation must be detailed enough to give a reader a picture of what happened, and the confidence that the underlying problems have since been addressed.

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The linked questions and other answer give a good approach for most students, but your case is a little different. In your case, the relevant fact is that the poor GPA was 10+ years ago, and in the interim, you have become a successful scientist.

Given this, your poor academic performance 10 years ago is not a negative that needs to be smoothed over; it's more of a "fun fact" about yourself. You should broach it in your statement of purpose as such: mention it briefly without making excuses, and then go into detail on your success over the past decade.

The key challenge will be hitting the right tone. The SOP should be a professional, fact-based document; it is not a time for introspection, oversharing, or therapy; at the same time, you do want to introduce yourself to the committee and share this "fun fact" about yourself as you explain what your purpose is in applying to this program.

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