"Large" includes "health issues", among other things.

I know someone facing this situation. She has successfully used her story in applications to important programs during undergraduate, and it did explain some time she had away from school (I believe this includes broken time during her undergraduate study in total, I also think it was earlier on.)

There are reasons grad school may be different: "Can she finish?" is arguably top concern and this concern is agnostic to reasons and may be as simple as "troubled past, troubled future." And also simply the fact that people discriminate - conscious biases and unconscious biases are both common. There's a reason employment law (and I believe similar laws hold for grad school admission in the U.S.?) protects against asking about stuff like this.

Plus my general feeling is that a personal statement can really only hurt you. It helps them know the person they are evaluating but obviously the rigor of course study and research experience is what counts.

In short, would the professionals here corroborate my instinct? Or does personal story like this sometimes add positive weight to an application? And, often enough that it may in fact be worth it?

I'll specify this is a science field for U.S. schools, I'm guessing that might help understand the circumstances but probably I don't need to be more specific than that.

  • There was an extremely similar question a couple of months ago, with quite different answers. I'm very, very bad at digging up similar questions -- maybe someone else will remember better. Dec 9, 2015 at 5:26
  • @aparente001 there's this where the answers are in the range of "possibly" to "cautious yes."
    – user18072
    Dec 9, 2015 at 5:28
  • I think I found the question I was thinking of -- see what you think: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/58134/… Dec 9, 2015 at 5:30
  • @aparente001 well there's only one answer, that was only voted on by you, and sounds creepy and Orwellian, and the you spent a long time arguing about it in the comments. And then it was closed as duplicate of the one I just linked... so no not that useful..
    – user18072
    Dec 9, 2015 at 5:34
  • Fair enough. Plus, in that question, there was clearly a disability, whereas in this case disability was not mentioned or tagged. If the other question is irrelevant, feel free to ignore it. (The argument in the comments was not worth preserving, but the basic concept about discrimination was important, I thought.) I guess in general I think that any mention of adversity overcome should be secondary to the background strengths and the research intentions, which should be at least the primary focus (if not the sole focus) of the essay. Just my two cents. Dec 9, 2015 at 5:38

3 Answers 3


My own experience includes the opposite of what you describe. I have evaluated statements of purpose (SoP) with specific stories of overcoming adversity where the story helped me conclude that this was a courageous person worth taking a shot at. This was, of course, accompanied by strong grades (though not necessarily stellar) and supportive letters.

I strongly disagree with your notion that an SoP can only hurt you.


My perspective as a member of my department's graduate committee (who also reads through all of the applications) is similar to @ProfJoseMartinez's: specific stories of overcoming adversity are useful.

I'm not saying this in the sense of the American world of motion pictures where we like an uplifting story for itself. Rather, it tells me something about the applicant: they were down, and they got up. That's something that happens to almost all grad students once or twice throughout the several years they're in a program, and it is important that students have the resilience to make it through these phases during their grad student career.

In other words, a demonstrated ability to get back up when you're down is a positive statement I take into account when reading applications.


(After 30+ years on admissions committees in mathematics...) Echoing the other two answers: a record of coping with difficulties more-or-less successfully is a plus. Yes, one worries whether past difficulties will recur... but the real point is that many or most grad students will encounter "difficulties" in grad school in any case, if only grad school itself, so a prior record of successful coping with the vagaries of life is positive.

That is, to contemplate the opposite, a smart kid who's never had any difficulties with anything and always been "smartest in their class" may be very unpleasantly surprised by the challenges of a top-tier grad program, where everyone else has the same natural gifts, etc. ... and be completely flummoxed by this situation.

It's not that "suffering/coping is good", but since troubles seem inevitable, it is absolutely a plus to be able to show successful coping with unfortunate difficulties.

(And, indeed, as in other answers, it's not an issue of "like in the movies", but something very practical.)

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