Scott’s in a jam! He’s good enough to excel at Harvard grad school if he can get in, but he’s got some black marks on his resume (black marks for Harvard, anyway).
But there are good explanations for them. Problem is, the explanation may create new problems.
I’ll let him tell it.
Hello Judge Josh,
I’ve been reading your site for several months now and even though I have not linked back, I do regularly send your post to my friends. 🙂
Thanks, both for reading and passing them along! I don’t say this enough, but I hope you guys all understand how grateful I am that you come here and read what I write. I know you could be Facebooking or watching Jersey Shore or, you know, studying, so I appreciate you choosing to spend some of your time here.
I think you have good advice so here goes.
I am applying to grad school this year. I would like to work in a very specific lab doing research in pre-biotic cellular membranes. Unfortunately, this lab happens to be at Harvard.
I almost went into that myself. I was choosing between journalism and pre-biotic cellular membrane research, and ended up choosing journalism.
I’m kidding, of course. Obviously you are several hundred times smarter than I was at — well, however old you are.
I have a decent GPA of pi (3.14) and a decent GRE score 1280 (mostly from the quantitative-740). Additionally, I will have 6 years of lab experience by the time I go to grad school next fall. 4 years part time at a bio-tech company as an undergrad and two years as a lab tech after graduation.
Well, I have to say, if this whole Harvard thing doesn’t work out for you, I can’t imagine you’ll have a tough time getting a job in your field that pays the bills. That’s a plus!
My question is related to my personal statement. Is it okay to include highly stigmatized medical information in a personal statement?
Hmmm, I’m not sure. Go on…
Ever since I was a child, I have suffered from recurrent depressive episodes. They present with extreme melancholy and lack of motivation, as school progressed they got worse to the point where I would not go to certain classes for a week, and routinely had difficulties both working and studying.
I would imagine so, yeah.
I realized this was abnormal around freshman year of college and have spent a good deal of time over the past 5 years trying to get treatment. This included personal research and consulting with multiple doctors, many of whom just prescribed me anti-depressants and several who basically told me I don’t have anything wrong with me.
Recently, I found a doctor who took my claim seriously and found an atypical neurological event. Several times a day my brain slows down for a few seconds. I began taking medication about a month ago to fix the problem and I haven’t felt this good in years. I have a very high level of motivation and feel that I have eliminated most of the problems I have had over the past few years.
Wow, that’s excellent, and congrats on the persistence. I’ve had several people close to me who have experienced the same thing — not your specific disorder, but having doctor after doctor insist that “nothing’s wrong” when in fact the doctor just isn’t good enough or willing enough to tackle the problem.
Including this information on my personal statement helps to explain several bad quarters, implies that I may have done better on my GRE, and also shows my dedication to research and problem solving. However, the downsides are that my condition is poorly understood and people tend to stigmatize against neuropsychiatric disorders.
I agree on all counts, and I think your worries are justified. A variety of admissions committee members MAY read your statement and interpret you as a mentally unstable student who simply thinks he’s better now.
In short, do you think it would be a good idea to include such information on a personal statement, or do you think it would hurt my chances more than helping them?
Well, it’s a tough call, but I think you have to go for it. Tell the tale of your disorder, the solution and the consequences.
I think you have to, simply because I can’t imagine a GPA and GRE scores that are, as you’ve said, just “decent,” are going to get you into a one-of-a-kind grad program at Harvard University. I’m not familiar with the particular program, of course, but that just seems like an ultra-long shot.
But that’s what you’ve got to work with, and you can either explain it or not explain it. I think by not explaining it, you almost guarantee rejection (I’m not trying to sound harsh, just getting down to brass tacks here). Hence, your only other choice is to explain it.
Now, exactly *how* should you go about explaining it? Because there are multiple ways of telling this story, and the weaker among them will get you rejected as well.
If I’m on your committee, I’m initially dealt a lot of uncertainty by your application, due to the lower-than-average scores and GPA. Your primary task is to kill the uncertainty — all of it.
Your approach in the statement must — MUST — *immediately* counter that uncertainty with confidence, from the outset. If at any point I smell uncertainty coming from YOU in YOUR essay, then you’re finished. At that point, I’m doubting you and you’re doubting yourself, which makes me doubt you even more, and then we’re done. No reason to go any further — reject.
However, if you attack me from the first word with positivity and confidence, then I can be swayed. And I don’t mean that silly, rah-rah, daily-affirmation type of positivity — I mean you need to write the essay as if neither you nor I is even considering any possibility that you can’t complete the program.
What I need to feel coming off the page is that this is a done deal. As far as you’re concerned, you know you’ll be admitted, you know you’ll complete the program and you know you’ll excel there.
Both the subpar academic performance and the psych disorder must be acknowledged and explained, but they should be framed as formative events from the PAST that burnished the smooth, finished product you are today.
If that sound a little complicated, it is — but it’s doable. This is, in fact, how almost all weaknesses should be addressed on everything from personal statements to scholarship essays to resumes and cover letter. It’s the concept of turning weaknesses into strengths.
Remember, if you can get away with not mentioning a weakness at all, then that’s certainly the way to go. But Scott’s GPA and test scores are forcing his hand here. And for the record, I don’t mean to imply that Scott has a lousy record by any stretch — we’re just looking at Harvard grad school here, so the benchmark is impossibly high.
Sorry for the long message, and thank you in advance. 🙂
No problem. Thanks for the unique question! I think we’ll get a lot of opinions, and I bet they’ll be divided.
— So, what do you all think? Should Scott include the details about his disorder and hope they explain some sub-optimal performance, or should he keep it to himself, avoid any backlash and try to get into Harvard on the resume he’s got?
Let us know in the comments below.