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Advice for a non-traditional applicant and the SOP


jeb1985
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Hi Everyone,

I'm currently a senior history major at a state school and obviously in the thick of the application process! I've spent quite a while working on my SOP and tailoring it to the schools I'm applying to etc, etc. There is, however, one thing I'm not quite sure how (if) to handle in the SOP and I've received conflicting advice from professors about it. I am a "non-traditional" applicant as I am 27. I've had personal, financial responsibility to my family that put college out of reach. I did take courses at two community colleges. My GPAs were 2.67 and 3.2 but there are a significant number of Ws and a lesser number of Fs. Most of the time I had work related conflicts and one terrible semester where I was unexpectedly laid off. Not to throw off personal responsibility, there were times when I was not dedicated enough. At the same time I built a career and landed a *great* job as an inside sales rep. After 3 years with that company my personal circumstances changed such that I did not need such a profitable job since I now only have to support myself. I knew if I left such a great job it would have to be for something I loved or it would not be worth it. In August 2011 I quit and transfered as a history major hoping to go on to teaching at the community college level. I've worked really hard and I think stats wise, research wise, recommendation wise, I'm a competitive applicant.

My question is whether or not to address my spotty academic record and journey to college in the SOP or if I should let the improvement of the last two years speak for itself? On some applications they have a section to provide additional info, should I put it there when the option is available? One of my professors said to address it directly in the SOP, two others said not so much.

Thanks for any feedback!

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First of all, the age 27 doesn't really make you a non-traditional applicant. Plenty of people go into PhD history programs at that age. It's actually a big positive to have some life experience before applying for PhD programs. It lets them know that you're serious (i.e.: not applying out of desperation), and that you are capable of being a professional.

Second of all, consider the possibility that a spotty academic record doesn't have to be something you have to apologize for. In fact, depending on how you are able to incorporate it into the story of your trajectory as an historian, it can actually be an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to your discipline, the diversity of experience you offer to your institution (some of which may get tons of applications from blue-blood grads of top schools, and would actually welcome the chance to include someone who has faced a struggle to get where they are), and your character. What is more compelling - a story of overcoming obstacles on the way to becoming who you are today, or of looking back on those times with regret? Now obviously you can't sell this point too hard, or else it will be off-putting. But if I were you, I would briefly address it in a positive way in your SOP. 1-2 sentences that get the point across without getting into too many details, and without sounding like you're making excuses (and it sounds like you wouldn't).

I think that several people on these boards have had somewhat similar experiences, so hopefully they'll be able to offer more well-developed thoughts. Good luck.

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My academic record was just as spotty as yours was, just in slightly different ways. And I was older than you are now when I was in my application season. I'm the third oldest person in my cohort and not that much older than the pack. If I was to guess the average age of my cohort I'd say 27 would be right. If your professors are telling you that your age alone makes you unusal it may be that they haven't been to grad school in a verylong time. The age spred has gotten much larger in the last two decades.

Some programs will throw out the application out of hand, some will not. Don't try and second guess which programs you have no chance in. I'm at Princeton, and I know several people who have similar life histories to you. Yale is also famous for taking "second chancers" in part because it diversifies their cohorts. The brilliant kid from a stable family that goes straight from BA to PhD at top tier institutions need to be mixed with other people. You may have to consider that given your circumstances you may have to get a masters first so that you can show that you can handle and are serious about graduate work, but that advise applies almost universally now.

As for how to handle it in your statement of purpose... Write no more than one paragraph about it, be straight forward, much like what you have just done here. Explain the circumstances directly and point out that those circimstances no longer exist. Mine was at the end of my statement of purpose and read something like this.... (nanes changed to protect the guilty):

"In parting, I would like to offer an explanation for part of my past academic transcript. During the late 1990s I first attempted to complete an undergraduate degree at XXXXXX. A combination of illness and family difficulties interfered with my studies beginning in my last two years of high school. At the time, I lacked the maturity to rise above the stressful circumstances in which I found myself. I spent the next seven years working full-time while attending community college part-time, eventually, transferring to the XXXXXX where I was on the Dean’s List. I paid out of pocket for my undergraduate education, which delayed my education during that period. These events occurred well over a decade ago, and I trust that my transcripts from both XXXXX (undregraduate) and XXXXX (masters) show that I am no longer the person I was at that time."

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One year ago, I was in your situation.

I'm older than you. And during my first attempt at college- well, I didn't take it very seriously. I finally finished my BA at a school that doesn't have a reputation- it's not a bad reputation, it's not a good one- because no one knows it even exists. And my GRE was just above average.

I applied to 9 programs, got into 8, and was offered funding at 3 (2 MA programs and 1 PhD). I chose one of the funded MAs because literally everyone says that an applicant with a MA has a considerably better shot at a great PhD program.

I addressed my "issues" in the first paragraph of my SOP. When I apply for a PhD program I won't address it at all because, as someone on here once told me "they will know you are not a 'blue blood' almost immediately." Depending on how dramatically you improved, you might not have to say anything? If you had a 2.2 when you were 19 but went back to school when you were 25 and scored a 4.0 for 3 straight years I would be really surprised if anyone cared about that 2.2. That said, there are people on here who are at places like Princeton and I have the sense to defer to their wisdom.

I got some really good advice from people on this board like TMP, StrangeLight, SimpleTwist, natesteel, and New England Nat, so I'm here to try to be that for someone else. My point is to tell you that it can be done. Good luck.

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I will be 28 when I (hopefully) begin my program (29 if I get shut out this year -- and honestly, my advancing age is worrying me a little in terms of reapplying, but I still know I wouldn't be the oldest by any means). But I also have friends in grad programs who have diverse cohorts when it comes to age. I also cannot imagine having gone into a PhD program right out of undergraduate. I have really advanced in terms of maturity and work ethic, as well as academically (I did a master's program).

But yes, there are people on this board who can testify to all sorts of situations. I actually am worried about my middling undergrad career (luckily it wasn't in history -- but still, humanities). I was just unfocused, but never failed, so there's no excuses to be made, nor should be made. But it's lackluster. I am discussing how I got serious when I started studying history in my master's program, though, and hopefully it will be that record that will shine through.

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Hi everyone,

Thanks for the responses. I appreciate it and I feel more confident. In the spirit of what Latte said I tried writing an alternate introductory paragraph. It's a bit long (I think) and needs some work but I copy/pasted the general idea below. Any feedback would be welcome. In particular thoughts on if this would be a viable way to incorporate my story into my decision to pursue graduate school.

Thanks!

During my first semester at ***** I signed up for the department's research seminar. The seminar was intended as a capstone experience for seniors. Even though I was a junior transfer student I was ambitious and took the course. My ambition stemmed from my decision to leave a career position in global sales to pursue studying history. I went to community college sporadically after high school but largely at the whim of my employers. At the same time I was focused on my career and family obligations so my efforts in college were half-hearted.The global sales job was a dream for someone touting only a high school diploma: it had a high salary, excellent health benefits, an employer match 401k and a generous vacation policy. Leaving this only to engage half-heartedly would be a waste. I could keep my cubicle and spend more time browsing the History section at Barnes and Noble. No, only my full dedication would suffice after I gave up my cubicle and its tradeoff of monotony for financial gain in favor of something much less pragmatic: intellectual fulfillment. The research seminar was an excellent first opportunity to become conversant with the historical research process. I signed up for it and never looked back.

That research seminar sparked a two year research project.....etc, etc.

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My story is a bit different than yours but my timeline is similar; I took two years off after high school and completed my degree in five years, due to health reasons. If all goes well, I'll start my PhD at 27. I've never thought of myself as a non-traditional applicant and I don't address it in my personal statement. Granted, my GPA didn't suffer as much, so I've taken the risk that raising concerns about my health might be more detrimental in the long run.

But regarding your SoP, I think you can say everything in the above paragraph in about two sentences. While jumping in the seminar shows initiative, it doesn't really demonstrate ability. Focus on the results (the fact it led to a two year research project) and save room to elaborate those. And/or talk about what exactly excited you about this seminar. Specific theory you encountered? Was it the first time you used archival materials and got hooked? Etc.

During my first semester at ***** I enrolled in a senior research seminar, despite being a junior transfer. Having just left a lucrative position with the intention of finally earning my BA, I was aware of the financial sacrifice I was making and was determined to dedicate myself fully and ambitiously. The research seminar was my first encounter with [xyz specific thing], which led to [research project], laying the groundwork for [current research interests.]

Edited by runaway
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In my above post I meant to say in the spirit of what Simple Twist of Fate said...and thanks runaway. The shortened version is a big improvement. I'm still not sure I'll even mention it at all. My GPA for the past two years is 3.89/major 3.9/overall. It seems obvious to me that whatever the issue was before...it is resolved now. I'm just concerned they'll look at the application and wonder what happened, why my performance was subpar for so long.

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You should mention it. They can read your records and see something happened and without your narrative of what happened they can come up with many others less favorable to you. Show them that you have some self awareness.

I know that you intended to address this to the OP, but I appreciate it too!!

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  • 1 month later...

Hi Everyone,

 

All of my applications have been submitted and I wanted to stop in first to say thanks to everyone who responded! And also to update what I ended up doing with my SOP in case anyone had a similar question in the future. My advisor, who helped me write the SOP, offered to address my academic history in his recommendation. He felt it would carry more weight coming from him rather than from me in the SOP. I agree with my advisor and removed the paragraph and let him address it. I guess I'll know in the next weeks/months how that decision panned out!

 

Thanks Again!

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You should mention it. They can read your records and see something happened and without your narrative of what happened they can come up with many others less favorable to you. Show them that you have some self awareness.

Do explain it as something positive! :) 

 

In some application systems you are allowed to upload an extra document that may complete your package. In my case, my undergrad was a 4-5 years course of studies and it took me 3 more to research and write my thesis. In the American system, taking 8 years to graduate is not very well seen so I explained that. Nevertheless, most of my advisors are familiar with the university system here and thus understand my situation. Let me tell you something else, I also applied for a PhD program here three years ago. I remember I did for my tutor because I barely knew what to do for my undergrad thesis. It was a disaster, of course. Now that I am more "mature" in terms of intellectual thought I really know what I want and where. I am 29 and I do not feel old to apply. 

 

Best wishes!!! ;)

 

Angie

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