Certain parts of your application may call for an explanation. Such aspects might include any of the following:
- Undergraduate grades
- Entrance exam scores
- Deficiency in the number of letters of recommendation submitted
- Lack of work experience
- Lack of extracurricular activities
- Why you are applying again after being denied previously
- Gaps in the chronological account of your education or employment
- Disciplinary action by an institution of higher education
- Criminal record
Under what circumstances should you use your personal statement to explain a particular deficiency, weakness, or other blemish? First of all, the application might explicitly invite you to explain deficiencies, weaknesses, aberrations, or any other aspect of the application that might not accurately reflect your abilities or potential and fitness for graduate study. Almost without exception, schools ask specifically about the last two items above (see Disclosing Skeletons in Your Closet below). Although most applications do not explicitly provide room for such explanations of the other items, the schools nevertheless permit and generally encourage applicants to provide brief explanations. Most schools suggest that you attach an addendum to your personal statement for this purpose, reserving the personal statement itself for positive information about yourself. If you are in doubt about the policy and preferred procedure of a particular school, contact the school directly.
Another point you should keep in mind is whether you have a valid reason. Staying up late the night before the GRE is not a legitimate reason for a bad performance, while documented sickness could be. A particularly bad semester could be explained by a death or illness in the family. If you lack research experience, you might point out the number of hours you had to work to make college more affordable for you and your family.
There are many more gray areas. For example, is it worth noting that you simply have a bad history of standardized testing? Doing so tactfully (in other words, don't rail against the arbitrariness of tests or demand the right to be considered for your grades alone) can help the schools understand your exact situation, but it most likely won't have a substantial effect on their perspective, since they know to take into account the imprecision of standardized tests. What about the class for which you simply did not grasp the material, or a subpar GPA during your freshman year? Again, what you have to say won't constitute an extenuating circumstance, since everyone has weaknesses and faces the same challenge of adjusting to college. Your best approach might be to try to transform such blemishes into something positive by pointing out particular courses in which you performed well, especially those that were more advanced, more relevant to your intended career path, or more recent.
Finally, make sure that you do not take a contentious tone. Don't accuse your teachers of unfair grading standards or complain about lack of extracurricular opportunities at your school. Be clear that you're not trying to excuse yourself of responsibility, but emphasize that you simply want the schools to have the complete picture.
Disclosing Skeletons In Your Closet
Perhaps you were once the subject of disciplinary action at your undergraduate college. Should you inform the school about this in your application? If so, should you include this discussion in your personal statement? In all likelihood, the application will inquire about academic discipline as well as a criminal record. You will undoubtedly be denied admission (or expelled if you are already matriculating) if the school discovers that you have intentionally concealed disciplinary action or criminal conviction. The admissions committee may very well overlook that indiscretion of youth (i.e. during your freshman year of college) if you bring it into the open and explain the circumstances. Many applicants do not fully appreciate that admissions officials make every effort to afford applicants the benefit of the doubt in such cases.