First, some general information about me. I am studying in an integrated bachelor's and master's program majoring in biology at a top-20 institute in India. In most aspects, my application (in my opinion) is pretty strong. I have worked in three labs at my home institution working on my own projects (i.e. hypothesis-guided research as opposed to technician-type work), and one of these projects has recently led to a preprint on which I am an author. I have been conducting my master's thesis in the US at an Ivy for the past few months. My recommendation letters will come from all profs that I have directly worked under, and I know that they will be extremely positive. Thus I know that I will handle a research environment really well and am a perfect fit for competitive schools. I will be applying to graduate programs in neuroscience in the US this year, including the program at the same uni where I am currently doing my thesis.

The reason for my worry is that I have a very average GPA. Converted to the US 4.0 scale it is 3.2, and 3.4 considering only courses from my major. My GPA has been greatly brought down by a handful of C and D grades in courses not relevant to my research interest, and overall my school has a strict no-inflation policy which has reduced my grades in courses, even those where I performed well.

Should I explain my overall low GPA in my SOP or in a separate document in my applications? My main reasons are not due to any particular hardships like health or financial issues, I was just disinterested in the courses after a few months and I spent more time in the lab than on the coursework. Would being honest about my situation as being purely self-inflicted be appreciated by admissions committees? Or should I not explain my transcript and let the rest of the application do the talking? I am mainly concerned about being filtered out at the very start (as some programs anecdotally appear to do) before my application is even read in its entirety and given a fair chance.

1 Answer 1


Frankly, I wouldn't waste time and words on this in an otherwise strong application, which you seem to have. In the US, letters of recommendation are especially important. What you might say could be interpreted as just "giving excuses" or whining. It is different, however, if one of your letter writers suggests that your low grades in some courses aren't indicative of your likelihood of success. It will be believed if others say it.

Be prepared, however, to answer questions asked of you.

Note, however, that some institutions, especially those that get a huge number of applications, will have a cutoff GPA for further consideration. I don't know how you overcome that other than with personal contact between your professors and those of an institution with such a policy. Even that is rare. But explanations from yourself are unlikely to help in those cases.

If the courses with poor grades are important to your field you have a bigger problem, otherwise not so much.

But the best way to avoid the problem overall is to cast a wide net of applications, not just places like the Ivy League schools or other "top" institutions. Being rejected from one place is probably pretty highly correlated with being rejected from other similar places.

It would probably also be useful to have a conversation with one or two of your professors about how to best present yourself. This is probably best done with those having actual experience in the educational system of the US or other places you are applying to.

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