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I am an undergraduate in my fourth and final year of getting a bachelor's degree. Next year I am thinking about applying to Phd programs in math (in any case I want to take a year between undergrad and grad school). However, I have a very questionable academic record in some respects.

My first year of college, I attended a liberal arts college known for its academic excellence. I did reasonably well the first semester, but the second semester I began to fall into a hole of depression and anxiety brought on what I will call a collision of being overwhelmed with coursework that I had never really been challenged by before and untreated brain stuff. I stopped going to class, stopped getting out of bed, and eventually ended up failing all of my classes that semester (like F fail).

I went back home and went to community college for the next year, and I got on medication for my brain stuff which, and this is not true in general but was and is true for me, was essentially a silver bullet that cured everything that was wrong with me and also unlocked a level of academic focus and ambition that I had literally never had before.

I was able to transfer to a state research university after one year of community college, and that is where I am now. I have a pretty/very good GPA, I have taken a lot of classes in the past two years because I keep on getting excited about things and I am on a very limited schedule (I have taken ~2 times the normal course load per quarter over the last few quarters). I have developed good relationships with faculty and have taken a couple of graduate classes, and I have taken or am taking pretty much the entire pure math undergraduate curriculum with more classes then required for the major. I haven't been able to take grad classes in math because I only have 2 years here though- the ones I have taken were in applied math and CS. I have the expectation that my GRE scores will be good enough, as I have taken a few practice tests and I am generally good at standardized testing.

Now to my actual question: how disqualifying is my first year of college, and do any of you have any suggestions as to how I would explain what happened, or even if I should attempt to explain?

I am willing to bite the bullet, but I will also say that I tend not to talk about that time in my life, or even really think about it. I am not the type of gal to dwell, and I thinking back to it is rather psychically painful. I have actually not mentioned the fact that I even went to the aforementioned liberal arts college to anyone at my current university as I have no interest in explicating the circumstances surrounding my exit from it. That is not to say that I feel that I am in danger of falling back into the same hole, just that I do not like to be reminded of my worst moments.

Thanks!

  • Since the minimalist approach feels right for you, I think that's the way you should go, i.e. don't bring it up; they'll figure it out. However, if someone asks you, I would give a brief explanation (e.g. "I had an undiagnosed condition which responded very well to treatment"). If they ask a second question, it would be fine to indicate that you don't like to dwell on unpleasant memories. Then you could ask them something about their program (e.g. "I hope there will be an opportunity in this interview to find out more about____"). But I doubt you'll be asked. – aparente001 Feb 24 '17 at 20:07
  • If you'd be applying at a European university other than Oxbridge/ENS, you would not have any issues at all (my limited experience is comming from France though). – Marko Karbevski Feb 24 '17 at 20:11
  • @aparente001 I appreciate the suggestion of keeping it unspecified, as in fact also one of my worries (which I forgot to mention in the initial post) is that admissions might also take it as a sign that I would be unable to cope with the increased pressure of a graduate program. – Walker in the City Feb 24 '17 at 21:07
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    Well, legally, you don't have to disclose a disability when you're applying, and the general consensus in the disability community that I've seen is not to disclose at that stage. // At the same time, I'd like to reassure you that if it did come out, they would be stupid to let it affect their decision; and it would be unlikely that they would. Still, if I were you, I would keep that card close to my chest. // Why don't you ask whether an interview is a standard part of the admissions process? I personally have never experienced an interview for admissions, but that was a while ago. – aparente001 Feb 24 '17 at 21:50
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    I've sat on hiring committees (K-12) and I can't tell you how many transcripts like yours have come to the committees. The pros sitting in the committees have always told me that poor academic performance early on is meaningless in the big picture. So I really think you could just let them imagine their own explanation, e.g. the candidate had a death in the family and had an academic disaster one semester. But then she took a break, made a fresh start, and ended up making a resounding success of the Bachelor's. Yay! She'll do great in our program, now let's go have lunch. – aparente001 Feb 24 '17 at 21:51
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I've had a somewhat similar rough start of college, with about three wasted years. I expected that it would very much be a problem as well. I'm now doing my masters and have a job that is very relevant to my field, and I've had some other relevant jobs as well.

In the interviews for those jobs, and during my application for my master, the subject of my unusual first years of college came to the table of course. However, I found that when you talk about it, it shows openness which is generally appreciated. What I also experienced, is that it can give you a good way to talk about how you have grown as a person and what you've learned from those experiences. In my case, it made me much more determined, and I could easily tell what I now am capable of, instead of focussing on what I was incapable of. It sounds like this could also hold for you! Because with your story about the load you're taking on, I feel like nobody will really care about that one year, and people can and will focus on what you're doing now.

  • I agree. If you own it, you control the influence something like this has over your future. – Teacher KSHuang Feb 24 '17 at 11:51
  • Thank you for your answer! I really resonated with this: "In my case, it made me much more determined, and I could easily tell what I now am capable of, instead of focussing on what I was incapable of." I am also curious as to if you referenced your record in cover letters, statements of purpose and such, or if you left it to the interviewer to bring up. – Walker in the City Feb 24 '17 at 18:05
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    On my resumé I state that I went to college those years, which I did. In the cover letter I mention it briefly/superficially, to prevent anyone reading it from thinking I'm hiding something. And during the interview I try to touch upon it early and mention something like that I'm willing to talk about it of they feel that it's necessary, but that I'd rather focus on my recent accomplishments. They tend to appreciate the honesty and forwardness of it. – JeroendeK Feb 24 '17 at 20:54
  • That is interesting because I only have "ba in math from state school, 2017" on my resume, rather then what schools I attended and when. However, unlike many people with spotty academic records, I am going to be graduating in 4 years so there is no gap of time to explain. Do you think this is unethical? I have thought that since the information I have is accurate and the relevant information to an employer is my degree, this is OK to do. – Walker in the City Feb 24 '17 at 21:14
  • Regarding which schools and when, might be a cultural difference. I live in Europe and I believe it's common to mention those things here. And I figure in your case it's okay to do it like this, does not seem unethical. However, in that case you can't emphasize that you're doing ~twice the course load, which could be a nice seling point. – JeroendeK Feb 24 '17 at 21:44
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I believe that,as long as your present academic record & research capabilities are good, people won't bother about it.Even if they ask the reason,you can explain what happened. That will help them understand that you are a much stronger person now and worth giving the chance and that you will excel in research, if extra guidance is provided.

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It's very common for grad-school applicants to have had a struggle early on in college. The step up from high school is a big one (academically and otherwise), and that's aside from sources of stress that might hit anyone at any age. If I see an academic transcript showing difficulties early on and not later, I assume I'm looking at someone who ran into some life challenges and has since bounced back. What's important in this kind of case when it comes to evaluating the student for admission to graduate programs isn't that there are some rough spots in their history. It's that they have been doing well lately and have shown noticeable perseverance in the face of some tough things.

Some graduate applications will give you the option of attaching an extra sheet of paper if you would like to add an explanation about extenuating circumstances (this absolutely counts) to be taken into account. But even if you aren't given that option (and/or don't feel comfortable sharing your story with anonymous committees), I wouldn't worry too much.

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Some of your comments indicate an additional issue that you did not raise in your OP: you are not planning to disclose your initial undergraduate institutions. (here are a couple previous questions that address similar issues)

Usually, graduate schools will request full transcripts from all undergraduate institutions, not just a notation of the degree earned and GPA like you would have on a business resume. If you omit your transcripts from your first school, this could cause you problems down the road with severe consequences, even if you are initially accepted.

Although you say you are graduating in 4 years, therefore there is no "gap" to explain, your transcript actually will reveal a hole: it sounds like you are actually completing your 4-year degree in only two years, and a graduate admissions committee will certainly wonder what you were up to in the previous two years since your high school graduation if you don't provide any information.

As you see from most of the other responses here, the general consensus is that struggles early on are not weighted heavily, especially if they are followed by excellent performance.

It is up to you whether to disclose the causes of your struggles early on, but I think you should at least disclose that those struggles occurred. In my personal opinion, a student's ability to overcome a struggle says a lot about their character, whether assisted by medication or not. Your story certainly sounds like you have the type of dedication that is an asset in graduate school.

If I was in your position, I would state vaguely on your application that you were able to overcome your initial academic struggles after changing institutions, and I would approach this as a strength that demonstrates your ability to work through adversity. If you have a phone or in-person interview at a graduate school and you are asked explicitly about your early struggles, I would answer that you had some mental health issues that responded well to treatment (or, as @aparente001 suggested, "I had an undiagnosed condition which responded very well to treatment") - you don't need to make any mention that you are still on medication if you are uncomfortable saying so (though there should not be any stigma against it). Your more recent undergraduate performance supports that you are doing well so you have little else to explain.

  • i do not think I made it clear in the comments but I do intend to disclose my full academic record to graduate schools- in fact, I don't think that it is possible to not do so. I meant that on a resume intended for employers that are not graduate schools I have written the degree that will be conferred from the school I am going to graduate from rather then the schools attended. Thank you for the response! – Walker in the City Feb 25 '17 at 0:46
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    Got it - I was a bit concerned since this has come up before on Academia.SE. It is possible to do all sorts of unethical things and just wanted to make sure the advice here that it is okay to not disclose a mental health concern didn't unintentionally convey that it would be okay to omit those courses from your application entirely. I do agree with you that on a resume not for application to an academic institution there is no need to include education where you did not earn a degree. Best of luck to you and please don't overwork yourself in the meantime, your course load sounds formidable. – Bryan Krause Feb 25 '17 at 0:54
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If you've taken double the normal course load in the past two years, you've done four years of work in two. That's pretty impressive.

You can show good grades for the last 30 (or whatever the number is) courses. Many schools will be happy to leave it at that.

Your bad first two years might hurt you at a few schools, but not many. Most would be impressed that you rose out of an unpromising start to a strong "finish."

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