Certain aspects of your application may call for an explanation. Such aspects might include any of the following:
- Standardized examination scores
- Deficiency in the number of letters of recommendation submitted
- Lack of work experience or extracurricular activities
- Why you are applying again after being denied previously
- Gaps in the chronological account of your previous education or employment
- Disciplinary action
- 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 college study. Schools almost without exception ask specifically about the last two items above (see “Disclosing Skeletons in Your Closet,” below). For the other items, where applications do not explicitly provide for such explanations, 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 while 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 SAT 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 extracurricular activities, you might point out the number of hours you had to work to help your family or save for college.
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, do not 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 will not 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 sub-par GPA during your freshman year? Again, what you have to say will not constitute an extenuating circumstance, since everyone has weaknesses. Your best approach might be to try to transform such blemishes into something positive by pointing out particular classes 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. Do not accuse your teachers of unfair grading standards or complain about lack of extracurricular opportunities at your school. Be clear that you are not trying to excuse yourself of responsibility, but emphasize that you simply want the schools to have the complete picture.
EssayEdge Extra: Disclosing Skeletons In Your Closet
Perhaps you were once the subject of disciplinary action during high school. Should you inform the college 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 if the college discovers that you have intentionally concealed disciplinary action or criminal conviction. The admissions committee may very well overlook that indiscretion of youth 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.
Words of Wisdom from Admissions Officers
“Every applicant has made some mistakes along the way—taken the wrong course, performed poorly in a course, or overloaded on extracurriculars. While these mistakes have their consequences, be confident in the choices you have made up to this point in life and in rendering the sum total of those choices to us in the form of an admission application.”—Admissions Officer, Amherst College
“If you finish your application to a college but are not satisfied that you communicated the information that you wanted to get across so that an admission committee can make an informed decision about your candidacy, consider making those final points by adding a note to your application. You might also consider getting another recommendation that will cover those points. Be judicious, though! Direct an admission officer’s attention to the details you want to get across by being efficient with your words and application materials.”—Admissions Officer, Columbia University