1. I failed a course in one of the last few semesters of my undergrad. I had poor grades in most courses in that particular semester.
  2. In the summer just prior to that semester, I had a disturbing experience in a foreign country (sexual assault by a guy, against my will and sexual orientation). It affected me very much while I was there, but assumed that I was alright after I came back to my home country.

However, in retrospect, I think #2 was indirectly responsible for #1. My grades were much better in all previous semesters and they recovered after that one.

I have already graduated from university and now wish to apply for PhD in the US/Europe (including few top univs).

Overall, my GPA is 8.9 on scale of 0-10, I have one conference presentation (conducted by top scientific society in my field) and one journal paper. However, the course in which I failed is important for my PhD field.


I know that a fail grade is a huge red flag in PhD admissions, so I really wish to address it in my statement of purpose (SOP). But due to the disturbing nature of my reason, I am afraid that it might make my SOP "controversial" or just too "negative". I am also slightly afraid that it may be interpreted as seeking sympathy.

Most importantly, I'm afraid of bringing the fail grade into focus, which might have gone unnoticed otherwise.

Should I address my fail grade in the SOP or just let it be? Will transcripts be thoroughly checked?

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    Once you have your PhD, no one is going to be asking for your undergraduate grades. – astronat May 6 at 21:40
  • I removed your question #2 since (1) none of the existing answers have addressed it, and (2) it is already addressed in our archives, the consensus being well summarized by astronat's comment above. I also edited some of the new info from the comments into the post. – cag51 May 8 at 20:55
  • Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. Existing answers in comments have been moved to chat. Note, we can only move to chat once, so future "chatty" comments or answers-in-comments will be deleted (but posts in the chat will be kept "forever"). – cag51 May 8 at 20:58

Here's how you can address this:

I was a victim of a major crime during [month]. This interfered with my studies during [time period]. This is unlikely to recur. I have subsequently done/will do [whatever relevant study] to make up for the disruption. My performance in [course] where I got a grade of [good number] is indicative of my abilities under normal circumstances.

This is essentially the same way you would address a medical, financial, or family disruption. The details of what happened to you are not relevant to your PhD application; just explain it in a way that shows you are likely to succeed in your PhD, even if you have a few bad grades.

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    The suggested text looks good. As for placement, what would be a good place for it to go? For example, does it belong in the statement-of-purpose, toward the beginning or end, or would it be better in a different document? – Nat May 7 at 9:31

No. You are understandably deeply disturbed by that whole episode... BUT other people can understand that you had some distraction that negatively affected your work without your going into any detail at all.

Having read many, many applications to grad school in the U.S. over the last 40 years, I am well aware that bad things happen to people, and that this disrupts their lives, not to mention school-work. And that the good luck to avoid bad stuff is not any sort of personal virtue. It's mostly just luck. And although I do brace myself to hear very upsetting stories... I aim to accommodate people in_advance, rather than somehow pretending to insist that they give a sufficiently awful story ...

Even at more mundane levels, I would strongly advocate respecting students' reasons for delays and such. I am not interested in doubting that they had a relative pass away, or that they were ill, or that they suffered personal violence. The kind of thinking that makes people "prove" these things is grossly abusive of sincere people who've had something bad happen.

I think we should not pretend to make rules to "be sure" that "no one ever cheats"... in part because this is impossible... and, meanwhile, it is abusive to the vast majority.

EDIT: from Azor-Ahai-him-'s comment, I should clarify: include a simple sentence in your personal statement or CV or wherever (given the format you have) that some very unfortunate external events seriously disrupted your life, resulting in that dip in your grades. Don't go into detail.

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    It's not really clear what you're recommending - are you suggesting the OP say nothing at all about their transcript and just rest assured the committee will assume they had some big event happen that brought their grades down? – Azor Ahai -him- May 7 at 19:00
  • @AzorAhai-him- I meant to say that the questioner could make a simple statement, that at a certain period they were subject to some external disruptions, which accounts for the dip in grades at that time. Not having to say what those disruptions were. – paul garrett May 7 at 19:02
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    I think that could be clarified - it sounds to me like you're saying something "don't mention it all" and "mention it in passing" – Azor Ahai -him- May 7 at 19:05

The SoP is not the place to discuss the past except for brief statements that show how the past supports your future goals. It is not a place, in particular, to discuss a failed course. The SoP should be entirely forward looking stressing goals and how you intend to achieve them as well as what prepares you for success.

The past appears in the CV. Leave it there.

I would probably suggest that you don't mention the failed course at all unless it was in a key subject in your field and you didn't have a way to make it up. If it is brought up, say in an interview, simply say that you were dealing with the trauma from a physical attack at the time. At most, a single sentence like that in some other place (not the SoP) might be given.

And, as user astronat says in a comment, no one will ever be concerned once you gain a higher degree. Few would even have a way to know. Relax.

But make the SoP entirely about the future.

  • +1 specifically for "have a way to make it up". Paraphrasing astronat's comment on the question "No one cares about X when you have superseded it with Y". Supersede that (vital??!) module with a short course and you've shown a specific interest in your PhD subject AND an ability to identify weak parts of your CV and improve yourself in the face of adversity. – Pam May 7 at 10:33
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    "The SoP is not the place to discuss the past." I disagree with this. The SoP should include enough personal background to communicate formative values and experiences which are reflected in the applicant's developmental trajectory towards the degree program and aspirations for what follows degree completion. To the extent that an awful experience shaped one's aspirations it might be included (e.g., application to a professional program in counseling psychology or social work with a focus on trauma). The OP's experience may also be irrelevant to their intended degree, and thus to their SoP. – Alexis May 7 at 16:47
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    @Alexis, actually that was my intent. I've edited for clarification. The key idea is not to use the SoP to "explain" the past, but to support the future. – Buffy May 7 at 18:07
  • Right on, Buffy. :) – Alexis May 7 at 19:42
  • Unless the application also has a personal statement, there is no other place than the SOP to explain the failing grade. If i see an F (or really anything worse than a B) in a class that is relevant for the PhD topic, i will certainly notice and ask about it. – jerlich May 10 at 6:57

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