Can I Get Into Graduate School?

by Stephanie Small
Published June 19, 2013


You may be asking yourself: "Can I Get Into Graduate School?" because you think you have to have a 4.0 average, a marathon-length list of extra-curriculars, explosive GRE scores and letters of recommendation that make you look like a fusion of Rosa Parks and Mother Teresa?

Think again.

Sure, there are people whose applications look like this. And obviously, they’ll probably get into the grad programs of their choice. (And they never spill spaghetti sauce on their white pants, and their teeth always gleam, and they always remember your birthday).

However, most of us are real people. We have real lives – and real-life problems. We get low grades in a class, accidentally bomb a portion of our GREs, or have some other kooky aspect of our application that makes Admissions go “Hmmm”. The key lies in knowing how to spin your story so you come out on top. Use your personal statement to show your mistakes and foibles to their best advantage. Make yourself relatable; explain how you’ve learned from your past, and how your history is informing your decisions today as you move forward.

Wondering how to do this? Here are a few examples of life difficulties that may have impacted your academic and extracurricular performance. Check out how we identify and speak to the silver lining in each one.

NOTE: Our aim is to prompt you to consider how you can explain your own process of encountering challenge and overcoming it. Don’t lie in your application, and don’t just copy these ideas. It will ring false.

Step 1: Address the situation.

Don’t just hope the admissions committee won’t see that F lurking on your sophomore year transcript! Ignoring the elephant in the room is a no-no in grad school applications (and in life). If your test scores are low, or you missed a semester of school, you’ve got to provide an explanation.

Step 2: Explain the situation.

Provide a clear explanation of why your performance suffered.

Example: Jay is applying to graduate school in social work. He grappled with substance abuse his freshman and sophomore year of college. By his junior year, he managed to reduce his use, and was sober during his senior year. His grades reflect this pattern, going from C’s and D’s the first two years to A’s and B’s during his final years. Jay can use his personal statement or a short-answer section to explain that those C’s and D’s he received freshman and sophomore year were due to a struggle with substance use.

Step 3: Tie the situation to your choice of graduate school and career.

Making a connection between the challenges you’ve overcome and your subsequent life decisions can be very powerful. It has to be true, though.

Example: Pointing to the dramatic improvement in grades evidenced by his junior and senior year transcript, Jay can describe his process of getting and staying sober. He can discuss how his own journey of healing has inspired him to help others, hence his quest to pursue graduate education in mental health. He can also reference the fact that his own journey has provided him with invaluable wisdom about how to help others, since he’s been down the same road.

Are you starting to see how what initially looks like a problem can instead be an incredibly powerful way to present yourself? Sure, the guy with straight A’s and perfect GRE scores is a great graduate school candidate, but you’ve got to wonder about his experience with the school of hard knocks, aka life. Admissions committees often want evidence that candidates have had some experience in the real world and are up to the challenge of a rigorous graduate program. If you’ve got a “colorful” past and funky academics to show for it, you might want to try using your personal statement to simultaneously provide an explanation and demonstrate how you’ve persevered in the face of adversity.