I know there have been similar questions asked, but the most recent question was focused on the transcript and the less recent question was focused on courses not relevant to the major.

My general question: When is it a valuable addition to a Statement of Purpose to explain an isolated case of poor performance in important coursework?

My specific case: I am an undergraduate currently writing a statement of purpose. I have had a 4.0 in math up until last semester. Last semester I took the following courses (with corresponding grades):

Graduate Real Analysis 1 (B)

Graduate Differential Topology 1 (A)

Graduate Probability Theory (A)

Undergrad Combinatorics (A)

Undergrad gen ed (A)

My explanation would include things like:

  • I was working 15 hours a week

  • I spent multiple hours a week applying for a Grant (and doing some preliminary Research along the way) and applying for the Goldwater scholarship

  • I was naive and overconfident to think I could go beyond a normal graduate course load (or something to that effect)

My reason to think that an explanation may be worthwhile in my case is because the B was in a very important graduate math course and I feel that, in effect, I just displayed that I hit my limit and my limit is below graduate level rigor. In reality, with my explanation, I feel like I may be able to convince someone that I actually was beyond the rigor of a first semester in graduate school and was simply naive and over confident.

  • 1
    Everyone has explanations for their failures. It may sound very harsh, but "my dad died before the day of the final exam" has the same weight with "I had a very bad argument with my best friend". All and all, you are the one who covers them up with your remaining effort and grades or so.
    – padawan
    Jan 6, 2016 at 21:35
  • 10
    Getting a B in a graduate class as an undergrad is not something you need to explain or even mention in an SOP. The fact that you took three grad-level courses in a single semester and got two A's and a B will count for you, not against.
    – user37208
    Jan 6, 2016 at 21:44
  • 6
    poor performance — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    Jan 6, 2016 at 21:53
  • 1
    By the way, isn't Jan 5 rather late to be writing up grad school applications...? Jan 6, 2016 at 22:05
  • 5
    I am not on an admission committee but I would suspect trying to explain a B would come off as neurotic.
    – user41631
    Jan 8, 2016 at 20:09

2 Answers 2


My general question: When is it a valuable addition to a Statement of Purpose to explain an isolated case of poor performance in important coursework?

Among scenarios I can imagine, never. You don't want to place extra attention on potential mild weaknesses in your application.

As mentioned in the comments, in your particular case one B in a grad class while you were taking 2 other grad classes and 2 other math classes with all As doesn't really look bad. The normal interpretation would be this student didn't have enough time to get an A in that one class with all the other work.

For the general question, one situation you might want addressed is if you have a semester that really looks bad (light load and actually bad grades, e.g., F, D, C), maybe due to major illness or personal tragedy. However, the statement of purpose doesn't really seem the right place to address it. A good letter writer will know when and how to explain this in your references, so you shouldn't need to explain in yourself in your application (though you may need to explain it to your letter writers if they're not aware).


******Never mention negatives, ever...***

Failures are essential for learning. Every scholar knows this, but when you are applying for a job, grad school, or you are making a statement of purpose you are selling yourself.

Sales is an important skill to develop for any person who has similar concerns, as the end goal is customer service. In this case, you want to show the board how you are going to bring value to the table.

That's it!

Tell me about yourself really means, Why should I consider you?

Answer this with not what you want to do, but rather what do you want to accomplish in this program? What do you want to change? How do you plan on brining about that change? What skills are you going to learn, or have you learned, or have you been teaching yourself?

I hope this helps. Feel free to PM me with inquiries.

PS: I am a business development manager in a great tech startup and a former entrepreneur. I know a thing or two about adding value and creating meaning from nothingness ;) You determine how much value you plan on adding and you mean something!

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