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Managing “negative” information in your graduate school application

We all have them. Those unflattering points in our academic path, and subsequently – in our application package: grades (GPA) that aren’t as high as we wished; a reference letter that is not as shiny as expected; a suspension; or a story not coherent or focused enough. Recently, we received a question in our forum on how to present unflattering information in an application. We decided to elaborate on it here for the benefit of our community.

Here is GradTrain’s 3 stage process to address this issue:

First step:  If you determine that this information will be known to the committee through your transcripts, resume or any other application materials, then you have no choice but to discuss it. 
Otherwise, you need to identify whether this information is really important and negative, or if it is only important and negative in your own subjective eyes.
The test of whether it is important and negative, includes two components: first, will it seem negative to the admissions committee? We receive questions from great applicants who did not meet their personal expectations, and thus undervalue their achievements. Others are trying to demonstrate high standards by “complaining” about what is actually a great GPA. Not a good idea.
Second - is this information important? You really don’t need to explain dropping out of that extra-curricular activity in 7th grade. One low grade from 5 years back would also not raise any eyebrow. Take into account that as an international student, the school you are applying to will not know all the nuances of your past experiences. Get out of your own skin and seriously think whether they will even interpret whatever this is as negative.
If this is not important and negative information in the eyes of the committee, just don’t say anything. Discussing it may portray you as someone negative, or someone who cannot tell what is important. Just move on!

Second step: You have concluded this is important and negative information. Well, you need to explain it then - but in a way that does not leave the committee with a negative impression of you.
First, ask yourself: Is there a possibility to represent this information in a good way? If so – try to do that. For example, if your experiment in the lab was based on false hypothesis and you have no publication to show for it, you can say that you found that the hypothesis was invalidated, and that this is going to serve as a basis for new research.

Third step: If you come to the conclusion that there is no good way to present this negative information, you need to do damage control. Here are some ideas on how to frame it in a way that will minimize the negative impact on your application package:

  • Everything in the world can be explained using positive language or negative language. Choose the positive track. Avoid words that convey negativity, like: failure, shame, loser, blame, difficulty, fault. Instead, use: learning experience, challenge, responsibility, independence, lesson, improvement, growth. 
  • Indicate positive change. Show that you understood the source of the problem, learned from it, implemented what you learned and used it to grow and improve. It can work to your advantage that you have improved. Use this experience as an honor, rather than a source of shame. It shows your self-awareness, diligence, and drive towards continuous improvement. For example, “My first year grades were a wake-up call for me. I decided to learn to prioritize my goals, and to focus on what was important for my future. This approach was reflected already in my second semester grades. This also taught me that improvement is always possible, a lesson I am implementing now as a TA. I believe my students now benefit from the learning experience I had.” 
  • Don’t come across as insecure, judgmental, whiny, or disrespectful. People want positive people near them. Positive people also have bad experiences. But they view them positively. 
  • Never say anything bad about anybody. Even if you are correct. Don’t criticize. Don’t make excuses. Don’t blame. Don’t bad-mouth anything or anyone else on your application. Ever.
  • Show excellence and balance in other academic fronts to overcome any negative information.

Applying to graduate school abroad is a stressful process, and may cause us to act irrationally and exaggerate items in our past that may not actually seem so bad to others – and most importantly – not to the admissions committee. Follow the process described here to determine whether or not you should mention it, and if you do – how to frame it in a way that will best position you. Most importantly, understand what the committee is looking for – and focus the presentation of your profile to fit that framework.


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