I am a master student in mathematics studying in Europe and I am applying to several graduate schools in the USA. They aren't all Top 10 in these dubious rankings, but I am applying to Harvard, Northwestern and Rutgers.

Currently, in the first paragraph of my letter of motivation (=letter of intent, statement of purpose, personal statement, ...) I explain how I overcame a big slump (=phase in which I had not much motivation to learn maths) which I went through after completing my bachelor, so roughly 1 year ago. I mention it because this was an important experience to me, and as a result I feel like a more mature mathematician, and I am now confident that I want to do maths in my life.

However, I read that one should never put negative things about oneself in the letter of motivation, so right now I'm having doubts.

Could people on the admission committee consider having gone through a slump a negative point? Do they only want to hear how awesome I was my entire life?

  • 4
    How would you feel when you review someones SoP, and he writes he was sick of [subject he applies for] for a month. think of how they would read it, they could read that as very negative :) Dec 3, 2013 at 17:31
  • @Dylan Yeah, that's what I fear. On the other hand, I get the impression that having a math burnout is actually relatively common. It may not be among the professors reading my application, though ;) Also, I explain how having this burnout actually helped me in the end, which in my opinion really is the case. Before that I had this rather unreflecting approach of doing maths because "what else is there? I've always done maths!", now I really know it is the right thing for me.. I guess in the end my question has no definite answer and it is left for me to decide it.
    – Parisien
    Dec 3, 2013 at 18:54
  • that's very true. After studying Software Engineering I got a "burn out" as well. I was so sick of it I studied physics. Then went back to SE afterwards, and know I'm in the right place :) Dec 3, 2013 at 20:13
  • an overcome of a negative event is a big positive. Focus on that positive.
    – Ooker
    Oct 20, 2015 at 7:38

3 Answers 3


Actually, I kind of disagree with @TheHiary... I don't think you should put negative statements about yourself in your cover letter.

While they do not want to only hear how awesome you would be, they do want to hear how, and why, you would be totally awesome working for/with them. You can look up some tips and guidelines about writing a cover letter here: A good motivation letter.

I also think that any half-page story has no place in your cover letter. It should be fairly short, clear and memorable/striking. I was suggested two pages maximum. One page is better.

But, if it was an important experience for you as a potential researcher, there's definitely place for it in your cover letter, just not directly.
What you should include, however, is:

  • what helped you get back your motivation

    (you can say that e.g. a project made you "rediscover your love of science" without explicitly saying that you lost it for a while)

  • how your approach to research has changed in a positive manner

    (e.g. working on the team project made me realize how important and helpful peer input, informal discussions and exchanging ideas was for my productivity)

  • how your vision of science/yourself changed after that

    (e.g. working with Professor X. what made me secure in my opinion that I want a career as a researcher)

  • basically, any positive result of your experience is worth mentioning, but I would rather mention just what triggered the positive change of attitude instead of motivation-less period before

  • Thanks for your answer! Your first link ("[here]") seems to be empty. I kind of agree that my half-page story is too long, but then again the biggest part is a description of what fun stuff I learned to regain fun at doing maths plus the conclusion that I feel more mature and ready for a PhD now. I will still try to cut out the more negative part as you suggest, and I think your second and third bullet points especially are very good advice that I can use. Merci!
    – Parisien
    Dec 3, 2013 at 15:16
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    I agree that you shoudn't put negative statements about yourself in your application, but recovering from depression is not negative!
    – JeffE
    Dec 3, 2013 at 22:29
  • There, I edited in the link. There was a question about cover letters here, but it referred to them as "motivation letters". The bullets are just examples, but basically, my personal preference would be: talk about all the good from the recovering part, and let the depression part be just implied. You can't deny it, but don't write "I was depressed and could not work for months". Even if the next sentence talks about how you got out of it, the first one might have already made too strong of an impression.
    – penelope
    Dec 4, 2013 at 8:40
  • How about "I got out of depression I had for a few months." ?
    – Nobody
    Dec 5, 2013 at 5:38
  • 1
    @Parisien As this answer indicates, it's about the spin. Any big negative that became transformational to your life can be talked about, and arguably should. But do so positively. Leave the negativity implicit at best. Make sure it is clear that you have purpose and passion that can last a career. Avoid anything that suggests to the contrary. Jul 24, 2014 at 8:14

First, having observed graduate education in mathematics for a long time, very many people encounter their own period(s) of extreme disheartenment _in_grad_school_, for the obvious reasons of the challenges, but also for having not thought through the level of commitment to the enterprise that's required to make it work, and how delayed the gratification may be.

(So to a large degree it's not whether one has an episode, but when, and what happens afterward...)

Thus, if portrayed well, acknowledging such an experience already weathered could be a big plus, if the net was that you have a clearer purpose and clearer interest in mathematics, etc.

Maybe this oughtn't be the first point you make, and not in the cover letter, just toward the end of the personal statement... so if anyone is interested to read that far, they may also be interested in your remarks. In fact, thinking it's worth reading statements of purpose may be well-correlated with sympathy and interest in your having worked-through a bad period.


Youll hear a lot of "rules" in presentation and writing. There are no real rules, only guidelines.

For this question specifically the guideline is: If you take your audience to depths, definitely bring them back to end a higher point. Do not end in the depths. If you experienced hardship, it has to be the second act in your story arc. The story must include how you learned and grew and are now a different, better person.

Always leave the audience feeling better at the end. Your goal is not to inform, but to enhance the audience. (Informing is a good route to making the audience feel better but thats a different conversation)

This might be tricky in a short letter, but youre talented. Im sure it can be done. I personally would stick with a purely upward story arc in this specific scenario, but saying it cant be done is false.

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