Kristen’s Counseling Corner: Addressing a bad semester when applying to Grad School

Dear Kristen,

My freshman year of college, I really struggled. I was super lonely and overwhelmed, most days it was difficult even going to class. As a result, my grades were bad, and I was placed on academic probation. The good news is that during the break I started seeing a counselor and made some changes when I returned to campus that genuinely helped me to turn things around. I’ve made Dean’s list every semester since my sophomore year and now that I’m a senior can even go so far as to say that I’m thriving. I’m in the process of applying to grad school but am concerned about my prospects of getting accepted. My freshman year continues to haunt me and tank my overall GPA. My current GPA is a 3.2 which is okay but not great. I can’t help but think how exceptional my GPA and overall application would be if it weren’t for screwing up so bad my first year.

What should I do to give myself the best possible shot of actually getting into one of these graduate schools? Any other words of advice or positive thoughts on this matter would be appreciated too. Thanks in advance.

Worried and Freaked Out

stressed, alone and freaked out

Dear WAFO,

Right off the bat, it sounds like you’re being unfairly hard on yourself. I can sense that you’re really upset and disappointed with how your freshman year went. Understandably so. No one likes making mistakes, messing up, and especially getting bad grades. It would be awesome if you had a time machine and could go back and do a do over, but since I’m assuming you don’t you’ve got to accept what happened and move forward from it. Learn from this. Grow from this. It sounds like you’ve done a fairly good job of doing just that. Frankly I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit for bouncing back from what sounds like a really tough and challenging year, and completely turning things around. That’s really incredible that you went from being placed on academic probation and are now acing your classes, thriving on campus, and applying to grad school. Talk about a 180! So please try and treat yourself with some compassion and understanding.

Now on to your question of how to handle this situation so as to give yourself the best possible opportunity of getting into grad school. It behooves you to address your freshman year honestly and directly. Most graduate school applications have a section specifically asking whether there is anything on your transcript you wish to explain. Don’t shy away. Use this experience to your advantage. Discuss how your difficulties with transitioning to college led you to a less than stellar academic performance, and then highlight your strengths and resiliencies. Describe how you bounced back, what you learned about yourself and from the experience, and how it’s made you a better, stronger, more conscientious student (because it obviously has).

Though GPA is a factor that’s considered when reviewing graduate applications, it’s not the only factor, and it definitely doesn’t carry the most weight. From my experience working as a graduate assistant to the dean of my counseling program, I can attest that letters of recommendation made the greatest impression, followed closely by involvements on campus whether research, teaching, or volunteer based. Though GPA and GRE scores were reviewed, these were not the most essential pieces. This is in large part due to the fact that GPAs and test scores are not always the best predictors for determining whether a student will flop or thrive in grad school. Rather, experiencing and overcoming real-life setbacks are and you’ve demonstrated that clearly.

I would say that if you address your freshman year head on and use it to your advantage, secure exceptional letters of recommendation from professors who know you well, that your likelihood of getting accepted into graduate school are quite high.

Good luck WAFO and please remember that I’m here to talk. You can call and speak to me directly.






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