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I'm kind of embarrassed to talk about this, but I've attended quite a large number of schools throughout my undergraduate career. 6 schools, in fact. Most of these schools I attended for 12 or fewer credits- I was dealing with an undiagnosed chronic physical illness, which I've now totally overcome, but which was disabling at the time.

I didn't know what I was dealing with then so I kept trying to push through school and having to withdraw from classes/schools and re-enroll somewhere else. I'm doing much better now, have brought my total GPA up to 3.52 (with a strong upward trend), and have a 4.0 GPA in my major (psychology). I'm studying hard for the GRE's and I trust that my recommenders will be able to provide strong recommendations for me. I know that my GPA could be better, but what I'm mostly worried about is the large amount of transfers on my transcript.

How should I deal with this? Should I mention in my personal statement that I was dealing with chronic illness and have overcome it? I'm worried that admissions committees will think I'm oversharing, but I feel that something as weird as 6 undergraduate institutions requires an explanation. I'm hoping this won't disqualify me from PhD programs, since I really love research in psychology and would do anything to pursue it further.

From comment: One of the schools was just somewhere I took a single course at while in high school. I left two of the schools because I lost the merit aid I needed to afford attendance due to withdrawing, and one because it was an online school and I was unhappy with the quality of the education I was getting there. I then went back to my local community college and started over, and transferred to my state university from there. I have research experience, and am planning on getting some more after undergrad. I'm hoping I can overcome this but I'm really scared.

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    Saying "I was dealing with chronic illness and have now overcome it" isn't oversharing; it's a simple statement of fact. – David Richerby Mar 28 '17 at 22:32
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    Water under the bridge. I don't see a need to explain. Clearly, once you found the right fit, things went well. Graduate programs want to feel there's a high likelihood you'll be successful in their program. Some early dabbling and flitting around doesn't raise a red flag in that regard, given your solid track record once you settled down somewhere. Admissions committees are pretty forgiving of things that happened in the beginning. What you could do is ask a comm. college recommender to include something like, "Steph had tried a couple of other programs before s/he came to us, but in our – aparente001 Mar 29 '17 at 3:44
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    ...department found a perfect fit and was an asset to the department. – aparente001 Mar 29 '17 at 3:45
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On first appearance, this does seem like a significant negative of your application. I have a couple suggestions for you.

One, make sure you follow the graduate school's instructions on submitting previous school's transcripts. Some graduate applications may ask for only the receiving degree transcripts. If some of the previous five schools' credits did not transfer and were not related to your degree, you might not have to mention those at all. Be careful though, as not including them when you are supposed to is considered a misrepresentation of yourself, and could invalidate your application (and even potentially your later graduation). On the other-hand, you may be asked to provide each and every full transcript from each of your previous schools.

If you do need to include the transcripts from each of the six schools (or they do all appear as transferred credits), I would highly recommend you include an explanation in your application. Their biggest concerns will be if this number of school changes indicates an inability to commit, the tendency to give up rather than work hard to learn something difficult, and/or the presence of a serious level of indecision about your direction. These are all serious issues for the successful completion of a PhD, in which you can expect long and difficult work on the same subject. You do not need to give much detail about your medical issues, but be sure that your explanation sufficiently explains the information given to them. For example, repeated withdrawals and restarts or a longer completion time makes clear sense in the context of a recurring medical problem, but why six schools and not one or two? Medical withdrawals and restarts at the same school would seem like a more reasonable option, which could lead them to doubt your justification.

Emphasizing your continued upwards gpa trend and your commitment to the area of psychology over the years will also help combat some of these concerns. Any out of class research will help you enormously as well as it shows you are willing to spend additional time on the subject, have the potential to succeed at PhD level research in general, and have experience to know you enjoy and are willing to commit to psychology research specifically.

  • Thanks for answering. One of the schools was just somewhere I took a single course at while in high school. I left two of the schools because I lost the merit aid I needed to afford attendance due to withdrawing, and one because it was an online school and I was unhappy with the quality of the education I was getting there. I then went back to my local community college and started over, and transferred to my state university from there. I have research experience, and am planning on getting some more after undergrad. I'm hoping I can overcome this but I'm really scared. – Bunnie P. Mar 28 '17 at 19:47
  • One quick followup question: If I don't get in anywhere, do you think it would be beneficial to go for a MA, to show that I can commit to coursework in psychology? I was planning on looking for a research position and applying again once I get some more research experience, but since the issue is with my school record, do you think additional schooling would be more helpful? – Bunnie P. Mar 28 '17 at 21:15
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    You've done the hardest part already to get to this point - look at what you've already overcome! And, since it sounds like the school changes were at the start, it will be even easier for an admissions committee to accept. You've identified this issue as a potential weakness, and now you can successfully address it in a few sentences to a paragraph in your SOP. As with your writing components of your application in general, make sure you have someone with experience look over it to be sure you hit the right notes (a writing service at your university or perhaps one of your professor recs). – user58322 Mar 29 '17 at 5:53
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    As for potential back-up plans, additional coursework would likely provide no benefit. Your idea of getting more research experience would be the way to go as any PhD application committee is ultimately trying to judge you on your ability or potential ability to successfully perform novel, independent research. Apart from the rough start, you have the standard community college -> state university, with great grades in your major and decent grades outside it. This already shows your ability to learn in the class setting (and commitment, with the appropriate short explanation). – user58322 Mar 29 '17 at 6:07
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When describing the reason for your less traditional background, you are right to avoid "inappropriate personal disclosure", but as you've written it now is pretty good. You want most of your application to be strictly positive, so keep it short, simple, and clear.

For example, you might talk about how you came to realize that this field is right for you. You can note that when you were younger you struggled with an undiagnosed chronic medical issue, and that you attended multiple schools in trying to find a way to succeed in spite of the limitations you experienced. You were finally able to obtain successful treatment in year XXXX, and you successfully returned to Your Institution. Then continue telling your success story of all the great work you did and why you are such a great prospect, and you don't really need to return to belabor the point.

Are there some people who will balk at having the nontraditional background you have? Sure - but there are plenty of people who respect struggle, persistence, and finding a way to overcome hardship. If your record is clearly much better after the point you name, then people reviewing your application can clearly see that, "well, they had issues before, but the problem must be solved because they've done great since then". You aren't the only one, and all the rest of the advice for grad school applies to you just fine otherwise.

I believe the key is that you need positive factors that are more recent and outshine the negative of having issues in your earlier undergrad experiences, and you show consistent positives which help to establish that clearly the issues you had before must not be an ongoing concern because you are doing well.

From personal experience, I found that having backup plans was one of the best ways to fight the fear of getting rejected from everywhere, even as you apply broadly to a number of programs to give yourself the best chance of finding the right combination of factors to get that "right fit". But it can be helpful to plan in advance what you'll do if the first round of grad school apps don't go your way, as the unknown is the scariest part. With your history of persistence in the face of adversity, remember that you've seen first hand that there is more than one way to succeed - even if it means you might not have the most direct path, there are always alternatives. Of 1000 possible paths, you only need to find one that works for you.

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