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I first attended college A, but had many personal problems, failed many classes, and eventually dropped out and returned to my home country. Three years later, I applied to local college B, where I started from the beginning and ended up earning excellent grades, strong GRE scores, lots of research experience, and good letters of recommendation.

I now intend to apply to PhD programs in the US/Canada, but the following has me worried. I understand that the answers depend on the school in question, but I need to know since it costs money to apply. If possible, please answer from the POV of an admissions committee:

  1. How much will the grades from school 'A' hurt my application? Will the admission committees from renowned research schools look at my grades and reject my application outright?

  2. Is it possible to turn my case into a narrative of triumph over depression and make me an even stronger candidate?

  3. Can you point to any case similar to mine and how they ended up?

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  • I suggest checking our our canonical question about grad school admissions; the answer there certainly covers much of this ground.
    – cag51
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 20:53
  • Please avoid edits that remove critical information. I took a pass at editing this myself; this should be a good balance between privacy and clarity.
    – cag51
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 6:00

2 Answers 2

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In the US and (I guess/suspect Canada) the early grades won't hurt you and will be largely ignored, due to the later success. Just like high school grades have no real impact on doctoral admissions if the later performance is good. The most recent results heavily (heavily) outweigh earlier attempts.

But, the early mental issues and how you overcame them is dangerous to bring up and I recommend against it. A story of how you achieved success despite early issues isn't really needed and might be misinterpreted. I suggest you avoid that unless asked, in which case, "health issues, now resolved" is enough of a response. The change in performance speaks for itself as reflected in the grades and such.

And, no, a history of mental illness is usually (I wish it were always) invisible to any admitting committee. Others with similar issues might be in the same pool and not mention it. To consider such things, beyond the academic record, would be wrong.

But, get good letters of recommendation which are important here and write a good, forward looking, Statement of Purpose that outlines your goals and how you will achieve them; both educational and career goals. Let the CV speak to the past without further comment.

Yes, lots of people have such stories, some of them mentioned in other questions here. Congratulations on getting beyond the past problems and to a better place. You don't need to look back or shine a light on the past to move forward.

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  • Thank you very much. On the internet, I have read something to the effect of: A university that does not see your progress is not worth attending in the first place. Should I bring my history up when emailing professors? Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 3:54
  • In my opinion, don't. Do it later if you want. Your progress is already shown by the current transcript and recommendation letter.
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 4:07
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The grade from the school A will not hurt you. Your current academic achievements will show them that you have the perspiration to overcome hardship to achieve success again despite of that mental burden you went through, but I doubt that it will help as you are going to apply for a PhD, not an undergraduate program which such a story may help. A person with a history of mental illness may have to show more than just academic achievements to have the same likelihood of being accepted.

I have overcome depression as well. I used to be a good student (#1), and suddenly one day I just lost the motivation for no reason. Depression sucks. Eventually I realized I was on the verge of losing everything I earned, so I decided to stop all of that madness by forcing myself to study even if I did not have the motivation. It worked. I eventually ended up with excellent results and kinda got over the (great) depression. I have never been hard-working and confident like this in my life.

My academic results are great. I feel lucky that I realized what I needed to do in time. More importantly, I have a realistic plan for my research journay, and I have a lot of motivation for that, but I do not care if somehow I lose the motivation as I can work well under no motivation and extreme stress. I also have many professors who support me and are willing to help me for what I am going to do next.

I will not mention this story in my application. It will just make things more complicated, but if one may want to know I may share not to show them that how I got over depression and got excellent grades, but how I trained myself to become a persistent, consistent and goal-oriented person. I do believe (I) having a history of mental illness may look like a risky asset to professors, but I can always show that I got over all of the hardship and I have the qualities and academic capability needed for the success (or at least completion) of my future research journey.

Good luck!

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