I'm a last year student of a degree in mathematics ( and another in physics) in Spain.

I'm starting graduate education next year and I need some advices on how to improve my chances to get into graduate programmes.

Here in Spain the grading system is based almost entirely in exams in which I'm not very good at. I will explain this, since I don't want to sound like I'm complaining.

I have some concentration issues while working under pressure so I loose stupid points that matter a lot in the academic world. Somehow it is very hard to me to detect mistakes in these situations and fix them.

I'm writing this because working on my own I managed to get quite a high level in some topics that I'm interested in. This could be confirmed by some teachers that spent some time talking with me.

I think I could function in academia for a number of reasons:

  • My supervisor thinks my thesis is promising and advanced.

  • I participated in summer schools (research oriented) having really good results. Some speakers are willing to write a recommendation letter for me.

  • The few hand out problems that I get to do here usually are marked as A.

  • Classmates rely on me when the need to understand some subject related to my interests. They appreciate my way of thinking.

I'd love to learn how to show this in my applications. How can I tell the universities that maybe I'm better than what my academic record says?

  • Will you be applying to graduate programs in Spain only, or in other countries? Admission procedures vary widely around the world. Jan 27 '16 at 22:38
  • Outside of Spain mostly. Germany and The Netherlands.
    – Abellan
    Jan 27 '16 at 22:38
  • 3
    Off topic, but you may want to look into ways to address your concentration problems - perhaps with the aid of a counselor or mental health professional. Graduate programs, especially at the masters level, often have high-stakes exams - you pass or you don't get a degree. And likewise, even just for admission, they may want to see evidence that you are addressing this issue - whatever your other abilities, no program wants to admit a student who won't be able to finish. Jan 27 '16 at 22:42
  • 3
    Research and some strong letters of recommendation.
    – Ric
    Jan 27 '16 at 22:55
  • 1
    Possible duplicate: academia.stackexchange.com/q/324/19607 See also: academia.stackexchange.com/q/38237/19607 (focused on US grad schools)
    – Kimball
    Jan 28 '16 at 3:58


I grew up and attended college in Spain myself, then jumped to the US for a Ph.D. and been here for 20 years already. So I know the Spanish system well and have first-hard experience with the transition.

Your best bet is the recommendation letters. You really have to make sure that they come from people that know you well and that can speak at length and in depth about your qualities and potential. Letters from Spain don't always go to this level of depth; it would be best if your letter writers have had prior experience with this (of course not at the expense of their knowledge of you).

Letters are very important--the most consistently underrated component of an application by the students in my experience.

@lafemmecosmique's advice is very good. The best way to make your letters look outstanding is to do outstanding work with the people that will write them.

Good luck to you.


The best thing you can do in this situation (I was in it before!) is to:

  • Focus on your research experience -- any of it and all of it. Bonus points if the field of that research is the same as the one you are applying to. Focus on this extensively in your SOP. Speak with your former colleagues about that research; was there anything publishable in there? That is a huge help, although by no means is it expected for applicants at this level.

  • Get into contact with all prospective supervisors well before you apply. Read a lot about their work (or read enough that it seems like you know a lot). If they're willing to talk to you, ask them questions. You could even arrange to visit their lab, if they have the time (I wouldn't frame this as "can I come visit" and more as "I'm going to be in city x in the near future, and I was wondering if I may meet with you and ask you some questions, if you have the time"). The point of this, besides just familiarising you with the nature of the PhD, is to get your name stuck in their minds. You will come across as enthusiastic, interested, and competent. And when applications come around, and they're looking at those piles of papers and deciding which one of those piles looks the nicest, or whether they want any of those piles at all, you will have an advantage. It may or may not be enough to make up for a bad record, but it's better than nothing!

  • Get some good letters of recommendation, from your research colleagues as you said. Remember, a neutral letter of recommendation is harmful, so choose your referee wisely. When you do this, provide them with a summary of the PhD work so they can write you a letter highlighting the skills you have demonstrated in their lab which are important or helpful for the specific PhD for which you are applying.

If you have trouble with exams but you're otherwise good, you sound a lot like me when I was an undergrad. I'm outrageously dyslexic and I got a serious case of tunnel vision / panic attacks in exams. What I lacked there, I made up with research during every summer of my degree. So a 'meh' academic record is not a death sentence. It just means that it would be smart for you to cast a wide net, and don't over-invest in any one application. You may be disappointed if you shoot for the highest prestige, and you should prepare for that (as should anybody who applies to them) --

I think in your situation, a person who is bad at exams but good at science would be an easier 'sell' for an experimental PhD, if your field and research interests allow this.

And finally, whether to address your 'shortcomings' in a SOP is debatable. For my applications in the UK, I was encouraged to mention a struggle with depression and a close death in the family in order to explain my okay-but-not-great average. For my application in France, I was told to absolutely never do this. I suppose this is probably a function of culture. You should ask people in countries x y and z what they think about this.

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