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Explaination of drop in GPA necessary/appropriate in SOP?

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Is it necessary and/or appropriate to explain a drop in GPA on your applications?

I'm applying to M.S. programs for Fall 2016 in Geology/Geochemistry. For the first four semesters of undergrad, my GPA fluctuated between a 3.9 and 3.6 average. Then, unfortunately (and sadly not an uncommon occurrence) I was sexually assaulted. This occurred during a summer session, when my GPA dropped dramatically to a 2.9, and for the remainder of my time my per semester GPA was in the 3.0 - 3.2 range. I graduated with a 3.4 overall GPA, and about a 3.2 for my upper junior/senior level courses.

My question is, do I offer an explanation on my application, and if so, in how much detail? I want to avoid making empty excuses, but I was extremely distracted during that time and it's reflected in my GPA. Would it be best to provide a vague "personal situation/problem" explanation? Where in the application would this take place?

Thank you in advance for any insight or advice!

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I'm sorry to hear this happened to you! 

If you are still able to access on-campus resources, would your school be able to offer any advice?

Here are my thoughts, but this is coming from someone without the same experience as you. I hope it helps you decide what is best for you!

I think something should be mentioned because your junior/senior GPA is a lot different than your GPA in the first two years. I think that if you don't mention anything at all, your GPA shows a downward trend, which is not a good thing. I think this would have a place in your SOP. However, I still don't think that you "must" mention it. Your overall GPA is still a decent GPA and if you prefer to not discuss this, I don't think you have to! But assuming that you do want to discuss it:

The amount of detail provided depends on what you are comfortable disclosing. You don't want to take the focus of the SOP away from your academic accomplishments so I feel that what you wrote here would be the most detail you would provide. (In fact, I think some version of your 2nd paragraph here would fit into a SOP). However, it is also fine to make it more vague if you would prefer. You can still use the 2nd paragraph of your post here, just replace the third sentence with something less detailed. 

But, in my opinion, I don't think it would be an "empty excuse" if you left out the details. That is, I don't think you need to feel that you have to specify that it was sexual assault. I'm just saying that you should write what you want people to know. If you prefer to leave out the details, that's fine. If you want to say what it is, and feel uncomfortable with the vague version, then write what it is. 

There are also two other approaches that you may want to consider:

Many applications have a final page that either has an input text box or a place to upload an additional file with any other additional notes you might want to add. If you feel more comfortable writing about this in this area instead of your SOP, this is an option.

Also, sometimes people prefer to have their LOR writers bring up the issue. If you choose this route, you can be vague in your SOP or leave it out altogether. 

Hope this was helpful to think about! And I hope you get additional thoughts from others here too!

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Hi TakeruK,

Thank you for the suggestions! I appreciate your response and kind words. It was a negative experience in my life, that I've worked through and moved on from, and now I'm trying to best manage it's repercussions.

My school does have alumni resources that I will explore and see if there is a graduate school adviser who may be able to offer advice.

Considering the sensitivity of the topic, and that the people who would be reading my application would potentially be colleagues, I've thought about writing that I experienced a "trauma" leaving it intentionally vague. Your advice that the SOP would be an appropriate place to address it is helpful; I'm leaning towards including a few brief sentences there.

Thank you again! I know this is an uncomfortable subject for a lot of people to discuss and I appreciate your maturity and insight.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Remember to include how it made you grow as a person.  That's super important and a great way to spin a negative into a positive.  Without the addition of the "how it made me who I am," it sounds like you're trying to have a pity party.  My wife, kids, and I have been through some trying times but it made me who I am today and a better person for it.  If you want, you can read mine and get some ideas on how to go about yours.

Edited by J. R., MPPA
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I agree with J. R. that spinning a negative into a positive is an important way to bring up issues in a SOP, in general. For your particular SOP though, I think if you choose to leave the details vague (I would probably do this too because I would personally not be comfortable with future colleagues knowing that level of personal history) and keep it just as a statement of a fact that something happened and affected your GPA, you don't need to go any further than that.

I think it's tough to both be vague and "put a positive spin" on it. So if you choose the "vague" route, trying to put a spin on it would just extend the discussion when you really want to focus the SOP on your achievements instead. I would disagree with J. R. that it would be a "pity party" if you just leave it the way we discussed above (i.e. your second paragraph in your first post with the detail removed). 

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J.R., I am interested to read how you framed your experience in your SOP. Thank you for the offer - please PM me when you have a moment.

TakeruK, it is a tricky balance. I've discussed it with a few more people, and at the moment I feel most comfortable leaving it relatively vague; it's interesting to hear people's feedback.


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