I am a senior who is graduating in December with a Bachelor's Degree in Pure math. I would really love to apply to the PhD program. However, I have been really depressed because even though I have a good GPA (3.85), and I have gotten mostly A's in all of my math classes (I have taken math classes up to Topology, measure theory, and Algebra), I feel like this is not good enough since I have 8 W's [withdrawals--no grade given] on my transcript. The horrible part is that 6 of these W's are on math courses. All those W's occurred during my first year at my university. The second year up to now I haven't gotten any W's.

My question is: How horrible (by the Committee who selects candidates for the program) is a W seen on a transcript? Is there anything I can do about it?

I feel like I have a big hole on my transcript, and it has been chasing me throughout my undergrad years even though I managed to hide myself from this monster and continued to take a lot of math courses, earning A's (and two B's) in all of them.

  • Have you applied some universities? How was their responses?
    – enthu
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 18:46
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    A question that needs to be asked is Why do you have Ws? If you choose not to answer this question (i.e. if it is related to family or psych issues that we have no obligation to know about) then "Are you willing to explain said issues to a committee?
    – Compass
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 18:56
  • 3
    @EnthusiasticStudent a W is not a low grade - it indicates withdrawing from a course, and no grade is assigned for the course
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 19:06
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    @Bakuriu It's a grade that's given in lieu of a standard letter grade indicating that you have withdrawn from the course without earning a grade. It is to indicate that you paid for and attended the course, but did not finish.
    – Compass
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 22:45
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    @Compass That's a really strange thing. I assume is a US thing, since I've never heard of such a thing before. In EU (or at least in Italy) that would simply mean that you failed the course and, as such, it wouldn't get listed into your university's curriculum. If the course was required you wouldn't be able to take the degree until you manage to pass the exam. This question should be tagged united-states since it's meaningless for other countries.
    – Bakuriu
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 10:43

4 Answers 4


Your situation doesn't sound so bad to me at all.

First of all, though perhaps I shouldn't, I will admit that many graduate admissions personnel do not thoroughly scour the transcripts. They look at the GPA and they look at the courses taken. Often this information is given separately on the application, so a look at the actual transcript may only be required if there is something missing there. So there's a tip for you: if you are asked for separate information about courses taken, definitely be sure to list it. (If on the other hand you are asked to list the courses taken together with the grades you got, it seems to me that you are ethically obligated to list the W's.)

More than this though, W's occupy a sort of nether region in academic grading. In my university we have WP (withdrew passing) and WF (withdrew failing). Only the latter affects your grade, and my understanding is that WP is not meant to be a stigmatic mark at all. (In fact undergraduate students are limited to 4 WP's over the course of their careers.) Unless the registrar puts an asterisk next to your 3.85 GPA and says warning: there were some W's! then in at least one very official sense the W's are not being counted.

More good news: all of the W's are in your first year. That is exactly the sort of localized difficulty followed by dramatic improvement that admissions committees are looking for.

I think it would be a good idea to use your personal statement to briefly address the W's. I'm thinking of one or two sentences which acknowledge that they exist, say a few vague words of excuse (e.g. "time to adjust to a new academic environment", "personal difficulties long since resolved"; nothing too specific or gory), and especially: point out how nicely you've moved on. If you feel like you can use the W's as part of a larger depiction of a crescendo of academic accomplishment, you might try that, but that's a more "advanced technique", so to speak.

I think it is quite likely that the average effect this will have on your application is little or none. Honestly, to me you sound significantly more guilty / apprehensive about a minor issue long since resolved than you need to be. I forgive you! Please don't hesitate to apply to all the PhD programs you're interested in. (If you like algebra/number theory/geometry/topology, please consider UGA.)

  • 2
    The only real concern I have which I don't think you've covered for the OP is that there are 8 Ws in the first year. At a 5cour/semester, that's a possible black hole. If it were 8 spread out compared to 8 all thrown in together could be noticed entirely different.
    – Compass
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 19:19
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    Logically speaking in a US setting, the only way a person can have more than 4-5 W's is by special circumstances explicitly authorized/excused by the university (medical/bereavement withdrawal, etc), so going over that amount isn't so much evidence of something terrible as evidence of a special, limited circumstances that has already been vetted/considered and approved by the institution a person was attending at the time. If this wasn't so, they would have simply been given an F/0.0 on their transcript. This further supports the idea that a committee/faculty should give it little weight.
    – BrianH
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 19:22
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    In my experience, W grades work a bit differently at every university. The OP may not be on a semester system; or perhaps signing up for "too many courses" was part of the problem. I agree that in my own university's academic system what the OP describes is (I think!) not possible. But apparently he did it without any lasting effects on his academic standing. Anyway, since it was all during his freshman year, I honestly am not so terribly curious about it. Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 19:43
  • 1
    At my University you could just go to as many lectures (not seminars or labs) as you like and just decide to not sign up for the finals. I always thought it sad that these courses didn't show up on my record. After all, I learned a lot and I passed the homework part. So I'd say embrace the Ws. If it fits your situation, you could say that you learned a lot but had to withdraw from finals for personal or scheduling reasons. Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 5:40

Well, I'm personally a current Ph.D student who was in exactly this situation....I had a ton of withdraws for psychiatric/medical reasons on my transcript, but I had my life and my psyche straightened out by the time I was ready for grad school. My advice is to be open and honest in your communication with the schools in question, let them know the reasons for the withdraws and that you have your headspace settled now.

There's a long tradition of mental health issues and mathematicians, there's a lot of us out there.


The first thing is to talk to the professors who would write recommendations for you. Firstly, those professors know a lot more about what happens in graduate admissions than you can guess. Secondly, recommendations are usually more highly weighted (and more closely read) than grades, so if they give you good recommendations that will out-weigh odd things on your transcript (especially if they were in freshman year).


Good point in your transcripts is your GPA. However, you have some withdrawing courses which may/may not affect your admission chances. Here are my general suggestions:

  1. For a PhD admission, you will need two or three letters of recommendation. You can ask the professor who knows you and is writing the letter for you to explain why you had such problem. I think it will be better if the professor who is writing for you be the lecturer of the course you withdrew. He can explain the instances on it. (For instance, some other people in the same class also withdrew the course, the exams and assessment was really tough, etc.)

  2. You can improve your chances and your problems with your transcripts by having a better GRE score report; so try to have higher scores on your GRE to improve your chances in your admissions.

And a final advice; this is your transcripts. You may not be able to change it. Don't be afraid of it and apply for the programs you like. Don't prejudge and let the admissions committee decide whether you are eligible for their program or not. May be the other applicants may not have better resumes than you and you be admitted in a good program, who knows? You will not miss anything.

  • 4
    While these are perfectly reasonable general suggestions, they don't answer the question of how admissions committees see Ws.
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 19:14
  • @ff524 The OP asked What would you recommend me to do? before you delete it in the 5th revision on the question. So it perfectly answers parts of the OP's original version of the question.
    – enthu
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 19:20
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    Your advice on "what to do" doesn't specifically address the OP's situation with the Ws, either (as Pete's does); it's just general advice on admissions for students who don't have a perfect record.
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 19:23

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