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Last summer I wasn't able to get much research done due to a complicated issue in my family which cost me a lot of time and emotional attention. Since it was not simply that I was sad and lazy for an entire summer, but that I was actively helping with an urgent issue in my family, I feel like it may help to briefly - in a sentence or two - explain what caused the setback and why I have grown from the experience. However, I don't know how harshly admissions committees will critique this "excuse".

Is it generally better to write about it, or to ignore it altogether? I'm asking this because I don't want to seem like I'm trying to hide a potential setback in my application, but I also don't want to shoot my own foot by rescuing what was never in danger in the first place.

I am applying for physics PhD programs in the US.

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    "last summer" is a very brief time-period and barely visible on your CV. People spend entire summers on the beach. – henning Oct 11 '16 at 6:13
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I don't think it is relevant to your applications. It was a short period, and many students take advantage of the summer break for such things as travel, time with family, gainful employment, volunteer activities.

It would be different if you had had a break from your studies of a year or more.

Best of luck to your family.

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    I lost the summer before my senior year of college to an unforeseen illness. It certainly wasn't very pleasant, and it disrupted my plans to do an internship, but it was invisible on my transcript and didn't cause a problem for my grad school applications. – trikeprof Oct 11 '16 at 0:21
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It would depend upon the impact that this has had on your achievement.

If the issue caused you not to achieve as highly as you expected (eg limiting your research or writing time on a master's dissertation) then I would consider briefly stating it's impact and how you worked around it.

If it left no trace on your performance, then there's no reason to add it.

I would shy away from adding it to demonstrate your personal resilience/how it has helped you grow, as this could be interpreted as playing the sympathy card!

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