Choosing the best candidate

Credit: Decorwithme/Alamy

I was recently accepted onto the neuroscience PhD programme at the University of Oxford, UK. But if you were to glimpse the scores from my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, you wouldn’t guess I’d be successful in my graduate-school applications. Most of my grades were Fs.

My first year as an undergraduate was not a kind one. My boyfriend and my grandmother passed away. I grieved, underperformed academically, and dropped out of university for a year.

I recovered from this rocky start, but was tempted to pretend that this first year didn’t exist when I began applying to graduate programmes. This would have been a mistake: I think it’s better to address an issue head-on than to unsuccessfully try to hide it. The personal statement can be difficult to write for many reasons, but addressing potentially thorny issues is an opportunity to demonstrate resilience, grace and maturity. Here are a few of the principles that guided me as I composed my personal statement. They’re not comprehensive, but might help others who find themselves attempting to explain an academic gap or a bad year on their college or work applications.

Explain, but don’t dwell. Remember the reason you’re telling your story. The faculty might be sympathetic to an applicant’s hardship, but the goal of an admissions committee is to identify students with a high likelihood of succeeding in the programme. I limited my explanation to information that showed that my early setbacks were unlikely to interfere with my future success. A couple of sentences were sufficient.

Don’t say, show. I wanted anyone reading my application to know that I am resilient to hardship, and I also wanted to show that I can take on a mentorship role for younger students who might be struggling — an important skill for my eventual aim of becoming a lecturer. But rather than just saying these things, it was more effective to show them.

My CV demonstrated a return to good grades after that difficult first year, which meant that my personal statement could focus on other things that made me a good candidate. It described, for example, my role in promoting accessibility at an annual conference, my work teaching science to secondary-school students and my mentorship of fellow undergraduates: I led workshops on statistical-analysis software, and training on how to present a research poster. By focusing on other aspects of my career, I was able to show that I am an attractive applicant for several reasons, and that my hardship is only a fraction of my overall academic profile.

Own it. Events outside my control contributed to an unfortunate situation, but by owning my story and not being ashamed of it, my personal statement became an opportunity to present my narrative as one of personal growth and progression, rather than as an essay in which I make excuses for a setback.

If there is something in your application that needs explanation, the personal statement can feel like a minefield demanding careful navigation. But by carefully considering the story you want to tell, writing several drafts and getting feedback from trusted mentors, the personal statement can be an opportunity to clear up any doubts about your qualifications for graduate school while simultaneously telling a story of personal success.