There have been similar questions but I believe my question is somewhat unique. I want to apply to a PhD program in Physics somewhere in North America. I have now completed both my bachelor's and my master's in Physics. Although I have gotten great grades in my master's, my bachelor's performance remains a disaster. I had to retake some classes thrice and I failed many times. Even after I did pass, my grades are unimpressive (I have an average of 5 out of 10, Indian GPA system).

Question 1: I was wondering if I should explain it since my master's performance is good.

Question 2: Would it have a significant impact on my application? Can I take online courses in the classes I have under-performed to have a better image overall?

Important: Is there any minimum grade for bachelor's studies which would disqualify me from being considered despite my stellar master's performance?

2 Answers 2


Most people will naturally weigh recent work more heavily than earlier work. If you need to give an explanation, then "health problems" is better than "mental health problems" since it carries less baggage. But apparently the early work wasn't so much a "disaster" that it prevented earning a degree.

The knowledge is more important than the grade. If your masters work implies that you know the essentials even though you had poor grades in those courses then you have probably sufficiently recovered that taking the courses again for the grades (not the knowledge) would be a waste of time and effort.

But a couple of simple, short, phrases in a Statement of Purpose may be all you need. "Having overcome early health problems, I was able to build a strong foundation in (specialty) in the masters. ..."

Don't use the SoP to apologize, however, and make it forward focused, but a few words can be expended to show that you are on the correct trajectory for success.

Some places have a cutoff GPA, but not all. And other things that "perk someone's interest", such as an especially glowing letter might overcome that in some of those. Note that there is a lot of competition, however.

  • (I have nothing to add but everything about your answer is perfect, thank you) Sep 8, 2021 at 0:37
  • Also some places have a "secret" cutoff GPA, that is not mentioned anywhere in the application process, and will reject without explanation anyone who is under the bar.
    – Stef
    Sep 8, 2021 at 8:37

I agree that recommendations and your recent work weigh more heavily than bad grades in your past.

I personally would not address your past grades at all- your cover letter or statement of purpose needs to be short, clear, and positive. The applications committee will read hundreds of these things, so you want to do everything you can to get thrown into the "possible candidate" pile rather than "reject" pile. Let them worry about your grades when they go over your transcript with a fine tooth comb, not as your first impression. If your letter talks about your accomplishments and preparation, and your recommenders back you up in this, then I doubt your past grades will need any explanation.

If anything, you could work an apparent explanation of your grades into your cover letter without ever calling out your past explicitly. For example, "Once I discovered particle physics I knew I had found my calling." There are plenty of academics who did not have stellar grades.

Different schools have different policies on grades and minimum cutoffs. I can tell you that I personally did not meet my graduate school's minimum cutoff for GRE scores (by just a few points). The admissions department swore up and down that I could never be accepted, but the admissions committee in my department thought I was a good candidate and accepted me. Your experience will vary.

In general there are two kinds of people on admissions committees (or maybe, two kinds of processes). The first kind of person is looking for reasons to include candidates and pass them along to the next level. The second kind of person is looking for reasons to cut or exclude candidates from the next level. You're never going to satisfy that second kind of person unless you have perfect grades and impeccable credentials, which most all of us (including in academia) do not. Also in my experience you're not going to enjoy working for that kind of person either. When you sit down to write your application packet, think about that first person who is looking for good reasons to pass you along for the next round of consideration, and write with that person in mind.

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