I'm a computer science undergrad going to apply to grad school (Masters in CS) and I'm preparing my SOP.
I really liked my field and have interest in doing research. Though In my first few years of college, I suffered from social anxiety which crippled my grades. However I tried to overcome it with determination. At present, my social anxiety is almost solved.
I've read the great book Graduate Admission Essays by Donald Asher. By his advice of explaining low grades is:
(i) It has to be in the past (ii) It has to be resolved (iii) It has to be sympathetic (iv) It should unlikely be recur in grad school.
Though I think I meet most of the criteria. I'm not sure is this (social anxiety) sympathetic enough. My question is at what length should I mention it in the essay? Should make it my major thesis or just a paragraph in the middle or not even mention it ?
One of my concern is that if it's a psychology or some humanity programs it may seem ok to mention this, since they are about people. But this is a CS program.
Congrats on your aspirations!
Let me start by saying, I think that you should address it in your SOP. The amount of space that you spend depends on the word limit (I wouldn't spend a whole paragraph is the SOP limit is 500 words) and how concisely you can effectively address it. You need to do more than just acknoweldge it (which you can do in one sentence). You have to address the parameters that Asher has laid out (which I think you could do in about 3-4 sentences). I would use it as a side theme, not a foundational emphasis (that is, use the experience as evidence of what you should be professing throughout the SOP, that you are capable).
Adcomms need to know that you can finish the degree. To effectively address the issue, you need to approach the grades/anxiety thing as something that you proactively addressed, rather than something that just happened to you unfairly. Your effectiveness is steeped in your emphasis in what you did about it, and less about what happened. If you OWN it in this fashion, you can aspire to make the experience part of your positive self-promotion, rather than something that needs to be dragged into the light only to be quickly/superficially excused and then swept back under the rug.
When I sat on an adcomm, the most boring SOPs were the ones from students who had consistent performance but had met with no challenges. I'm not talking about life-altering, biopic-worthy stuff necessarily; just something to show that you developed some resourcefulness (for example, a student who maintained consistent grades while holding down a part time job was more impressive than one with just the consistent grades, a student who challenged herself to take advanced theory even though it was scary because she knew it would benefit her honours thesis or grad school aspirations is better than one who padded their GPA with "bird course 101" in their last year).
An analogy that might help. Your credit rating is something you build on with good planning and performance, though it can be upset profoundly by life events. You aim to maintain a good score because a positive rep will provide opportunities later on. while a good rating is ideal, a less-than-perfect rating is still preferable to no rating, because people providing the opportunities don't know how bad a "no rating" candidate might be. Applicants with okay grades but who have not overcome anything, are kind of like "no rating" candidates, they haven't had their mettle tested, which leaves one wondering, when they are faced with their first bout of adversity in grad school, will they weather it or have a total meltdown? (Note: this is not to say that we all don't have our own struggles ect; but adcomms can only know what they can glean from info provided; if you don't show, they can't tell; if you don't describe/address events, they can't infer that, "well, I'm sure that they sorted that out somehow...")
Ultimately, I WOULD advise you to address it. AND I would suggest that you use the space as an opportunity to show that you have been tested (it helps if the anxiety is confirmed by a doctor or other authority), that you came out on the other side (this helps if you site something specific and proactive, like if you sought out the academic skills centre for help, this is more compelling then, "I overcame it with sheer determination"), and that you still have the drive not DESPITE the experience, but because you used the experience to help build a skill set that you are able to draw upon for future problem-solving and success. I would recommend that you show drafts of your SOP to your LOR writers, to ensure that you are coming across in the desired way.
Side bar: My partner is a video game developer and works with a litany of programmers, coders and computer science people. I'm not endorsing a stereotype, but there is a lot of shared experience amongst his colleagues concerning social anxiety. I think that it is VERY LIKELY that your experience will be met with empathy (as I've said, however, I would encourage you to aim to not just garner understanding, but to use the experience/SOP space to drive home the point that you are a capable, tested candidate).
Best of luck!
Edited by surefire, 06 March 2012 - 04:08 PM.