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I guess I'll just launch right into this... So, long story short(ish), my dad died from cancer in the fall of my freshman year. After wanting to be a doctor for as long as I can remember, this finally made me realize that it was just not the right thing. Unfortunately, I'd never thought about a back-up plan, so I spent my first couple of years in majors unrelated to my current one, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was depressed (never diagnosed; that would have required actually getting help...) and suicidal and, all in all, a complete mess, though I don't think I'll be mentioning any of those things in my applications. My GPA wasn't awful, certainly (I think a 3.45 one semester was the lowest), but it has not exactly done me any favors. In addition to all of that, my mom was diagnosed with a treatable cancer, though one with an awful and drawn-out treatment, this past spring. Again, my GPA didn't suffer terribly, but it was a noticeable drop.

Currently, I'm applying to environmental chemistry PhD programs, plus the GRFP and other fellowships. My GPA is at a 3.64, my GRE is average for the programs to which I'm applying, I have no publications (though that may change), but good LORS, good research experience, and good connections. So not a stellar applicant, but not a terrible one either. I realize that explaining my circumstances won't magically make me a top applicant, but I do not want them dragging me down, as usual, and so I think I will explain either way.

So, how do I go about this? Is it just a detached, one sentence explanation in my SOPs/personal statements? My experiences did not consciously influence me to choose my current field (and that explanation would probably be too sentimental for a hard science application essay, anyway), but they certainly influenced my trajectory, so do I frame it in that way? I've seen advice about having someone mention it in a LOR, but I don't think I'll ever have the guts to tell any of them.

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LORs are still one of the best options, but if you never shared this with anyone (which I'm sorry to hear! it would have been helpful for your well-being to have someone on-campus who is aware and able to support you when needed), then perhaps you don't want to start now. 

So leaving that aside, depending on how much you want to write, you could have a 1-2 sentence statement in your SOP that simply states that a death of a parent in your freshman year and the illness of the other more recently have affected your trajectory in school both in prolonging the time it took you to choose a major and in affecting your grades, but nonetheless you have done your best to pull through, as evidenced by your grades and [other credentials]. Alternatively if you wanted to say a bit more, you might consider having a short addendum to the SOP that would be basically a stand-alone (short) document where you would tell your story. Basically a version of the one paragraph you have here is all you'll need. And yes, it won't suddenly make you a top candidate, but it will most certainly put your grades in perspective and if you have strong LORs and experience, I think it might make you a quite attractive candidate. I am certainly impressed with your mature writing and your apparent ability to persevere through terrible personal circumstances. 

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  • 1 month later...

The advice I've gotten from professors is to talk about it, but don't make excuses, and don't make it into a game of self-pity. Focus on what you've done to overcome these challenges, in which ways you've succeeded, and how you will continue doing so in the future. I also wouldn't put it at the beginning of your personal statement. Stick it in somewhere in the middle and use it as an example of what a driven individual you are to persist in spite of obstacles.

Edited by ThousandsHardships
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