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I recently completed an M2 (second year of masters) in mathematics in a Paris university. I come from the UK, had never studied French until the summer directly before, and foolishly thought that taking courses in a different language would be an interesting challenge. I was admitted to the course without needing to take any language competency exams. All lectures and learning material were in French, but we were allowed to write exams in English (which I did).

I absolutely bombed the first semester, achieving a 10.5/20 (~50th percentile), which is not great, and I felt that it was at least partially due to the language barrier (though I did lack some mathematical maturity compared to French ENS students in the course). I managed to get 18.5/20 in my second semester, which is considerably better. So I finished with a 14.5/20 (or grade bien), which was respectable (in the top 15% of my course) but I don't know if it will be good enough for the competitive PhD programs that I was hoping to apply to next year. It is perhaps worth noting that I maintained excellent grades during my UK undergraduate years.

My question is; would those PhD programs be willing to view my second semester grades (which include my thesis) as more reflective of my potential than those of the first semester? In other words, are (self-inflicted) language difficulties considered to be mitigating circumstances?

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    In what part of the world will you be applying to doctoral programs? – cag51 Jul 20 '20 at 17:22
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    And are you fluent in German or will you be repeating the same issue? – Buffy Jul 20 '20 at 17:25
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    Mathematical graduate programs in Germany (and indeed almost everywhere else) are English-language. – ggclip Jul 20 '20 at 17:27
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    I don't see how this question can be answered unless you specify in the question the language of the PhD program. The country does not always specify the language. I don't think it's English in France. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 20 '20 at 18:02
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    @AnonymousPhysicist It depends where you are and with whom you work. You will find English theses from France nowadays and at an institution with staff who speak good English, you may well undertake a PhD in English. BUT for everyday life, learning French is recommended and may even become essential. However this can be done as part of the degree. (Side note: I came to France as a post-doc, which was essentially in English for me, have since moved to industry. I initially got French classes from the Institute and nowadays get to speak more and more French in everyday life too, including work.) – DetlevCM Jul 20 '20 at 19:08
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The good news is that you have a clear positive trajectory, and I'm assuming your undergraduate scores are quite good to get you accepted to the French MS program to begin with. In this case you have a high undergraduate GPA, and poor 1st semester MS GPA, and a good 2nd semester MS GPA.

This is something you should put into your cover letter. Straightforwardly acknowledge your difficulties as succinctly as you can, but phrase your 2nd semester "comeback" as overcoming a difficulty through hard work and perseverance.

A script might be: "I underestimated how difficult it would be to receive instruction in a language I didn't have a fluent grasp of, and my grades suffered in my first semester. However, through diligent effort to improve my French, as well as late nights studying my courses, I was able to gain good marks in my second semester. Therefore, while my GPA is not as high as I would like, I believe what I have learned in time management and self-study during the past year will help me overcome future difficulties that challenge any PhD student."

As to how potential admissions officers would react to such a statement is out of your control. If it were me and I was not in a top top program where I can afford to throw away 99% of the applications, I might keep you in the pile for further review.

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