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Years ago I had a really rough few years of college, inability to focus, tons of stress, manic episodes etc. Instead of going into the drama of it all, the bottom line here is that during those years I cheated in a few classes because I felt paralyzed and paranoid almost all the time; by the time I was able to move about without that weight I was into another manic episode trying to get things done but not finding a way out (at this point I knew something was wrong but not what it was). I was caught and in the aftermath I submitted a statement that I fully accepted the consequences instead of contesting my obvious guilt.

Later I would find out that I had type 2 bipolar syndrome that was untreated for the past decade and I was told that I was lucky that it hadn't gotten worse. Once I was on medication I tried college again at a different school and graduated recently with honors.

My question here is that I'm really interested in going to a masters program but I don't know how to explain my first attempt at college, the failures, and the mental illness or even if I should mention it at all. I don't want to hide things but I'd appreciate any advice on this

  • 8
    Any strategy for dealing with this should probably take into account the fact that medieval attitudes about mental illness are very common. If all it shows on your first college transcript is a string of F grades, then a safer approach might be just to describe that as an initial failure in college due to undiagnosed health problems, which were later diagnosed and cured. – Ben Crowell May 9 '15 at 20:40
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    You should not label yourself as bipolar. Even if putting a name on your problems was a relief you'll have a lot of negative reactions from other people and that will follow you for a long time. Do as if your (hypo)manic episode was a distinct sickness: it was first undiagnosed and then diagnosed and treated properly. – Cedric H. May 10 '15 at 9:46
16

Your outstanding performance in your second attempt should be your focus. Don't let yourself downplay how much you've achieved this time around, because every candidate without your history will be singing their own praises. However, you should, briefly, discuss the previous attempt with as much specificity as you are comfortable in your personal statement. A past failure with mitigating circumstances should not be held against you provided you acknowledge it and your recent performance clearly demonstrates that you've overcome these circumstances.

13

If your rough patch was so bad that you MUST address it in your application, your best move is to be honest (but brief!) about what happened, demonstrate how you've moved past your mistakes, and focus on your recent achievements.

I speak from personal experience. My second year of undergrad was rough. I was suicidal, diagnosed with a mental illness, abused my medication, failed classes, cheated, the works. I was caught cheating and received essentially the maximum punishment that wasn't suspension: I had to fail the class, and there would be a permanent note on my official transcript that says "This person received a mandatory fail for class XXX due to violation of the academic code." It was a huge wake-up call. I worked my ass off for the next few years, pulled my grades up, and ended up getting into my top choice Master's program (Ivy!)! If you told me that in undergrad I would've laughed because I thought no grad school would accept me. Here's what to do:

1. Mention it only if you have to.

Only mention your mistake in your application if it's visible to the admissions committee. In my case I had to because it was in my transcript and NOT explaining the note would be a huge red flag. If whatever you went through isn't obvious from your other application materials, then mentioning it is unnecessary. The admissions committee only skims your application, and something you think is horrible could be something they don't even notice. Can you give me more details about your situation? What exactly happened that was so bad that you're considering explaining it in your application?

2. If you have to mention it, be honest but brief.

Don't dwell on your mistakes; a few sentences of explanation are sufficient. You want the committee to focus on your achievements and not your failures, so just mention the negatives as straightforwardly, concisely, and professionally as possible and move on. Don't give more information than you have to and don't get too personal. In your case I would not mention the mental illness unless it's absolutely relevant. I didn't even mention my bad grades; I just explained the cheating. I didn't want the admissions committee to remember TWO negative things about my application.

3. If you violated a moral or legal code, show remorse and show that you've learned from your mistakes. Demonstrate how you've moved past your old mistakes onto future successes.

The point of disciplinary action is to teach you a lesson. Show that you have learned from your errors. End on a positive note by mentioning how you've overcome your mistake to achieve your recent successes. Show that you've moved past your mistake and ready to work hard in your dream school's grad program.

4. Submit the explanations document separately from your personal statement if possible.

Your personal statement should be overwhelmingly positive and confident in tone, and anything negative in it will be jarring to the reader. If there is a separate section in the application for you to submit this explanation document, then do that. If they don't offer a separate section, contact the school and ask.

5. If there's someone with clout who can write you a recommendation letter, ask them to explain it for you.

This person should be pretty influential, though -- it should be someone the admissions committee can trust. In my case I got a professor who was on the admissions committee of the school I was applying to to write me a recommendation letter. I had taken a class with him as a visiting student, and when I asked him for advice about explaining my academic violation in my application, he offered to explain it in his letter. This is something I would do only if your letter writer is someone the admissions committee trusts more than they trust you.

Admissions committees are people and they're willing to forgive you. They were students once too.

Congratulations on your recent successes! Overcoming mental illness to graduate with honors is an amazing achievement that you should be very proud of.

I hope I've helped. Feel free to contact me privately to discuss your situation in more detail, if you'd like. I spent a lot of time and met with a lot of professors to figure out how to address this in my application. I'd be happy to share what I've learned.

I should mention that I'm in the US and studying computer science. My academic violation was in an art history class unrelated to my major.

  • 3
    My only quibble might be the advice about showing remorse. I guess this depends on the nature of the mental illness, but depending on what it was, remorse for one's actions is not necessarily appropriate. – Ben Crowell May 9 '15 at 20:35
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    @BenCrowell I'd say remorse if somebody violated a moral or legal code is always appropriate, no matter the reason for the violation. If the OP cheated because the cognitive distortions caused by the illness made him think he has no other choice, then he should show remorse for having cheated (but not for having been ill). Remorse doesn't automatically mean "I was a selfish moron", although some people tend to interpret it that way. It means "I recognize that what I did was a mistake (regardless of the reasons for making it) and I am invested in avoiding it in the future". – rumtscho May 10 '15 at 9:55
  • Yes, my answer assumes that OP has to explain the cheating incident in her/his grad school application. @rumtscho's comment puts it perfectly. If you don't mind rumtscho I'm going to edit my answer to clarify this point, using your "moral or legal code" wording since you explained it excellently. – jj080808 May 10 '15 at 22:31
  • @jj080808 you are welcome to use any wording from my comment in your answer. – rumtscho May 11 '15 at 10:03
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Your story seems very simple and straightforward:

  1. You had an undiagnosed and serious medical problem.
  2. After diagnosis and treatment, the problem is fixed.

Your grades are the clear evidence for point 2, and in the unlikely event that the admissions process asks for proof of your medical diagnosis, that should be easy to provide.

There are lots of people who are taking life-long medication for a wide range of conditions, and that doesn't prevent them having successful lives and careers. Don't get stressed out just because you are another one of them.

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Your whole story sounds like what you would go through during your graduate period. Don't worry about it much. From my experience during the last few months in a Master's Program, there is a bit of panic in the beginning but as long as you understand that failure is a part of the whole process then you should be fine. I failed a lot during my first year but still managed to pick up myself and excel during the last months.

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    You seem to be conflating the stress of being a student with a diagnosed (and treated) health problem. But "Don't worry about your health problems, they are part of the process" could be spectacularly bad advice, e.g. it could be literally fatal. I am left with the impression that you didn't carefully read the question. – Pete L. Clark May 9 '15 at 5:22
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    If you noticed, I refrain from talking about the health problems. Instead I try to answer on the failure part. Health problems are different for everyone and I think we can agree with this. – Omar Sar May 9 '15 at 5:27
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    The question was "How to frame early university troubles related to mental illness when applying for masters program after more recent successes at university?" If there was anything in your answer that addressed this, I'm sorry but I missed it. Perhaps you could edit your answer to clarify. (Also, no: some people have the same health problems.) – Pete L. Clark May 9 '15 at 16:35

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