So you’ve taken the GRE, whittled down your list of target schools, and got your letters of recommendation squared away. Now the panic of trying to figure out just what heck to write in your Statement of Purpose sets in. While the feeling of writers block is normal, it might be slightly more debilitating if you’re also a low GPA applicant. As you’ve undoubtedly read time and time again–you need to explain your less than perfect grades at some point in your application. But what should you say? How should you bring it up? Where should you discuss it? All excellent questions!
First, if you haven’t read through our tips on getting into grad school with a low GPA, definitely do that now. It’ll help you think of any last minute touches to add to your application.
So you’ve got less than perfect grades. Maybe you bombed a few electives or had a rough semester after a break up. Regardless of the cause, the admissions committee only cares about two things (1) it was a temporary event that won’t be repeated and (2) you learned the material even if your grades don’t reflect that.
The truth is that most people have a low GPA because they’re lazy, not because they’re stupid. If you’re going to provide an explanation of your grades, it needs to combat the perception of laziness, not lack of intelligence. The only way to have an amazing work ethic and transcript blemishes is an anomalous life event. Examples include: health issues, family emergencies, death of loved ones, personal crises, or other major life events (such as military deployment, having a child, etc). If any of these things happened to you, without question explain it in your Statement of Purpose and your CV. This isn’t just to improve your chances, though it will, it’s also to ensure that the admissions committees gets a complete picture of your academic history. Leaving that information out robs them of the opportunity to assess you accurately.
**Do not conjure up fake stories of family hardship or illnesses. Not only does it constitute fraud, a humiliating and potentially life long shadow on your reputation, but you’re also doing a disservice to all applicants. There are hardworking students who have dealt with uncontrollable events. Attempting to take advantage of their hardships goes beyond disrespectful. Lying on your application is not a victimless crime.
So what if you have a low GPA, but didn’t suffer any life altering traumas? Should you still bring it up? Depending on how low your GPA actually is–yes. Keep in mind that every field is different, so what constitutes “low enough” for explanation is variable. For the social sciences and humanities, less than a 3.9 could warrant a discussion. For physical sciences, less than a 3.5 would probably need some commentary. Life sciences fall between those estimates, depending on subfield.
If you got mediocre grades without a life altering event, and are now interested in applying to graduate school, it’s likely that your motivation and maturity developed substantially since the blemishes occurred. This should be pointed out to the admissions committee. They’re perfectly aware that 22 year olds are not fully mature adults in every context. Admitting that you weren’t sure what you wanted to study initially (which led to lack of motivation), or that you didn’t realize you wanted to continue on with your education, is probably a good idea. Now, we have to place a disclaimer on that last statement: It’s only a good idea to explain that to the committee IF the rest of your application shows serious growth as well. If didn’t get a job getting research experience after you graduated or switch majors half way through your bachelors, you can’t write off your low performance with this method. Your record needs to back up your explanation.
You started off as an economics major and hated it (low GPA as a result). Halfway through your sophomore year you switched to computer science and immediately had better grades due to an interest in your subject. Your transcript proves that your lack of initial performance was just because you were in the wrong subject, not because you’re inherently lazy.
You did so-so throughout your undergraduate career. After graduating you took a job in a research lab and became very passionate about the field. Now you’re applying to graduate school so you can pursue a research career. Your trajectory shows that you didn’t become interested until after your college education and gives the perception that your past performance is not indicative of your future motivation.
Explaining these types of situations in no way guarantees your grades won’t be an issue, but if you have some kind of proof that you’re in a very different place now, you need to point that out.
Where To Discuss Your Grades
This question is likely to garner a lot of different opinions, all of them valid in their own way. Most people will tell you to discuss grade anomalies in your statement of purpose.
That said, our advice to students is to put it in the “Additional Documents” section in most cases, and we’ll explain why.
Your statement of purpose should be a high note. It should give the committee confidence in your knowledge and maturity. A perfect statement of purpose is a research proposal, mission statement, biography, and elevator pitch—all at the same time. That’s a LOT to squeeze into 1-2 pages, but lets assume you manage to do it. Then you disrupt that flow and glowing image by reminding the reader that your grades aren’t great. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to realize that you probably don’t want to wave your weakest area in their face. It also takes away precious space that you could use to talk about research and why you love their program so much.
Our advice to applicants is to utilize that “Additional Documents” section—it’s there for a reason. Write a succinct paragraph (not a novel!) explaining your GPA blemishes, and upload it as a PDF. This way the admissions committee will be able to glance over it, make a mental note that your GPA had a reason behind it, and move on to the rest of your application. If you do this, do NOT discuss your grades anywhere else in your application! All you’re doing at that point is reminding them over and over again that your grades aren’t great. Use the rest of the application to talk yourself up, not rehash your shortcomings.
Lastly, if the statement of purpose directions (or those anywhere else) specifically tell you to address any issues in your application, follow those directions to the letter. Do not put an explanation of a low GPA in a different section if you’re deliberately told to discuss it somewhere else.
What To Actually Write
What you write will depend on your situation of course. The only thing we can tell you to absolutely not write, is anything that could be perceived as whining. There is a huge difference between explaining and making excuses. You need to figure out where that line is for your situation and stay as far away from making excuses as possible. Nothing annoys a professor faster than a student who won’t own up to their mistakes. It shows a lack of self awareness and maturity that can kill your application.
If you had a professor who graded harshly, don’t complain about them. Instead of insinuating that the teacher was a jerk, simply state true facts about the grading scheme (perhaps they used a downward curve, for example). Always finish up with a sentence that takes full responsibility.
Below is a rough example of a low GPA explanation for an “Additional Documents” section. It gives relevant information without being overly personal. It takes responsibility while also pointing out the difficult position the applicant was in at the time. A truly great paragraph would go into more detail about how the experience improved them somehow, ultimately helping them to become a better candidate.
Is there a specific question you’re dying for us to answer? Ask away in our comment section!