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I began an undergraduate program in subject A and because of circumstances outside of my control (receiving threats from someone with a history of violence against me), had to repeatedly withdraw from courses in that program.

I am considering going back to school in a totally different subject, and I very strongly feel that I have the ability to do well. If I do well in this subject and want to enter graduate school for it, would they be willing to only consider my grades in the relevant second program and overlook the earlier unrelated one, especially considering I had a legitimate reason for it and did well afterwards in the related program? Or would the withdrawals send up too many red flags?

(Edited in later) I think this question is rather different from the How does the admissions process work for US Ph.D. programs question because that's a more general question about making up for bad grades or things, but I am asking about special consideration for extenuating circumstances. There's a difference between getting a bad grade in a class because you weren't good at the material as opposed to having to withdraw from it because you are receiving violent threats from someone who has previously beaten you.

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    You should definitely address this issue in your personal statement and/or other application materials when you apply. It is very likely that the extenuating circumstances would be taken into account. – Roger Fan Aug 16 '15 at 21:34
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    Although I think the linked question above addresses in general terms what your plan of action should be, here is another possible duplicate question: Trauma affected my grades while in undergrad, how will it affect me getting into graduate school? – Mad Jack Aug 16 '15 at 23:48
  • I see this question as quite different from either of the proposed duplicates, because (1) this is not a weak student and (2) the student is proposing to return to school in a very different area. I disagree with any close votes. – Corvus Aug 17 '15 at 4:18
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    Did you finish any courses in subject A? If you didn't (or maybe even if you did), and the university was aware of why you were withdrawing, you might ask if the university would remove those courses completely from your records. I have no idea if this would be possible. – mkennedy Aug 17 '15 at 8:00
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First of all, I'm sorry for your painful experiences. To answer your question:

Based on my extensive experience directing a graduate program at a leading public R1 university, your initial experience in the initial program will have very little bearing on your chances of admission. I say this for a number of reasons:

  • We are concerned with trajectory even more than overall grade point. I am relatively unconcerned by someone who gets C grades during freshman year, so long as I'm seeing A and high B grades by junior and senior years.

  • When a student goes to school for a couple of years, then does something else for a few years, and then returns to school, I consider the grades subsequent to return almost exclusively. In most cases, unlike yours, this is because the student needed time to grow up. But I'm happy to accept that he or she (frankly, it's usually a "he" that fits this pattern) has grown up and to accept the high marks after the return to school as ample proof. I don't care what somewhat was like as a 19-year-old, I care what that person will be like in my program.

  • You can and should explain the switch of programs in a graduate application. Having a letter-of-reference writer explain it as well would be a wise move. Once an admissions committee sees the highly valid reasons, there is little chance that they would hold your record at the first institution against you.

  • Everywhere I've been, if grade points are used to prune or order applicants, only the gradepoint at the final undergraduate institution is used. This may not be universal, but frankly I find it unlikely that most graduate admissions programs would go to the trouble to compute the proper weighted average across programs, even if they did care about your earlier performance.

I hope this is helpful and perhaps even encouraging.

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  • I definitely agree with the above answer that in cases where the grade does not reflect your true academic ability, it would be a good idea to add a reference letter that speaks about it. Often, there might be different reasons for a student's decision to withdraw, apart from academic ones, and a reference letter that speaks highly of your academic abilities would I think make up for your withdrawals. – Kakoli Majumder Sep 1 '15 at 10:41
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I realize that from your point of view, including your specific reason for withdrawing seems like it would draw more sympathy, and help your case. But consider that those reading your application packet will be leery of admitting anyone they think could be more trouble than they are worth. So, unless you can include some paperwork to show some objective evidence of what you are talking about, it would be best not to even hint at any specifics regarding the causes for your poor showing in Subject A. Your accompanying statement should just say that the poor showing in Subject A is not an accurate reflection of your academic abilities, and draw their attention to your performance in Subject B.

I can assure you that academia recognizes that young people withdraw from courses frequently, for a variety of reasons that don't necessarily predict future results. By withdrawing instead of staying in a course and failing, you did a very sensible thing, and minimized the long-term ramifications. Even a string of W's in a transcript are not as bad as a couple of F's.

Here are some ideas for documentation -- items that you might have, that you might be able to get a copy of, or that you might be able to request after the fact:

  • order of protection or other court document

  • statement from a doctor or mental health professional

  • statement from an administrator of the institution you were attending

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Having worked in an admissions department at a large university it can be hit or miss (depending on the officer that gets your application) in my experience.

This may only be the case at the institution I worked at, so take it with a grain of salt, but there was strict adherence to a minimum admissions average.

My best advice would be to retake the course if you can and try to get a better grade THEN explain in your letter your circumstances. If that isn't possible try to include documentation from a professional (depending on you issues) if you can.

I know it sounds pretty awful that is how a liberal minded university behaves behind closed doors but I wish I could tell you otherwise.

Best of luck

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    At least in the US, graduate programs generally don't have "admissions officers", but rather admissions committees composed primarily of faculty within the department hosting the program. – JeffE Aug 16 '15 at 21:59
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    Indeed -- were you doing graduate admissions, @RyanDavis? And if so, Masters or PhD? Everywhere I have ever been, PhD admissions have always been the responsibility of the faculty in the department in question. – Corvus Aug 17 '15 at 4:06

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