What should I do, if anything, about old, unflattering transcripts?
July 21, 2009 11:15 AM   Subscribe

I am planning to apply for one of the Fulbright teaching assistantships for the year after I finish my Master's degree. I am unsure of what to do, if anything, about my academic history. Is it worth it to try and bury old, unflattering transcripts?

I went away to college when I graduated high school and suffered through a very severe depression, lasting for a couple years. As my depression and anxiety went untreated, I have a mountain of failures on my transcript from that school. I was dismissed from that school in 2000 for low GPA. Now, almost ten years later, I'm in graduate school, enrolled in a well-regarded program. I went back to school a few years after leaving the first time, gradually working my way back up from community college onward. I was awarded my bachelor's degree and graduated summa cum laude (3.92 GPA), receiving both departmental and university honors. My graduate department awarded me a first-term fellowship when I entered based on what they saw as my promise as a student. Since then my grades have remained very high, my teaching evaluations have been excellent (important because I'm going for the teaching assistantship and plan to ask my supervisors to be references), and I have several years of experience under my belt showing that I can be and am an excellent student.

However, I'm concerned about the effect of the earlier transcript, because things like the Fulbright mandate that you send all transcripts from all institutions attended, no matter how old. Every time I see that requirement for anything I'm filled with dread, because it forces me to remember a really dark time in my life, and to feel like I'll forever be judged for it. I really want this experience: I am a language teacher who has never actually been abroad; I've learned languages out of context, like systems to be mastered, and while that approach has taken me to a high level of proficiency I find that I am really missing the cultural experiences many of my colleagues have had, and I feel like it would be really important and beneficial to me as a teacher and as an individual to have this experience. As such, I'm trying to maximize my chances of getting it. I would think that my more recent accomplishments matter more than failures from ten years ago, but I'm still worried about them knocking me out of the running.

So, I've been wondering if I should write the registrar of my first university to see if I can get those records sealed or otherwise enact some sort of retroactive withdrawal. There's a part of me that thinks just letting it all out in the air and showing the whole story of my failure and recovery is better than just burying the old transcript, but the attitude I've seen displayed here in the past in response to academic questions like this one is that even one failure on a transcript is a horrible black mark, let alone a whole host of them. I realize that no one here can tell me anything for certain about the effects that my full undergraduate history would have on application reviewers, but I'm looking for experiences with this sort of thing. Is the "redemptive narrative" potent enough to just let things lie, or in the interest of maximizing my chances should I try and get rid of the black marks? I transferred some courses from this school to later institutions, too, so wiping out this particular transcript (if they even allowed me to do so) would not eliminate all references to it in later transcripts, and might raise questions. I'm trying to make this decision soon, because if I initiate this process it'll probably take a while (again, if it's even possible) and my campus's due date for the Fulbright application is 9/18, a month before the national one. There is not a lot of room to address my academic history in my personal statements for the grant, because they're limited to one page each and I've already strained to keep them within that limit just answering the questions that Fulbright suggests you answer, so the only place I would even have to address this would be in my campus committee interview, if I get to address it at all. I feel like the honest thing to do would be to just have my record speak for itself, but I don't know if that's the wise thing to do, because if this is gaming the system it's something people do all the time, as it's not at all uncommon at my current school for students to have retroactive withdrawals approved for courses they failed, even if they're made to jump through hoops to do it, raising the question of what that "honesty" is even worth in the first place, especially since it's uncertain as to whether I'll have the opportunity to contextualize it, and without that context, they're just letters on a page.

Thanks in advance for your input. I've been a member of this community for a long time, albeit mostly as a lurker, but I felt like this was the place to go for it. Asked anonymously because I don't know that anyone I know reads AskMe but in the case that they do I would prefer to keep my memory of this episode in my life private.
posted by anonymous to Education (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am not a school administrator, but I did flunk out of university in a spectacular fashion my first year (1997-1998), leaving my transcripts marred by seven (count 'em) failed courses. I thought I would never recover from this. Five years later, I went back to school and got a BA and an MA, the latter with a funding package.

I feel like the honest thing to do would be to just have my record speak for itself

This is key. It's unlikely that you can make your transcripts go away (and I'm not qualified to answer this part of your question, so I'll leave it). However, from your description of your most recent academic career, you not only improved, you excelled. Even if you were given a chance to explain, you wouldn't be telling them anything they haven't heard thousands of times before.

I would let your recent accomplishments do the talking because they demonstrate that you have really grown up into a hardworking, competent, and reliable adult. Good luck!
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:36 AM on July 21, 2009

the attitude I've seen displayed here in the past in response to academic questions like this one is that even one failure on a transcript is a horrible black mark

While I probably haven't read every thread like this, I have read most of them, because I often post in them. I don't think this is actually right, and perhaps you may have been focusing on the answers that supported your fears. The fact is that while dramatic academic problems are not good, they are not by any means the end of the road for pursuits where your old transcripts matter (which is, incidentally, just about nothing outside of academia). What is really problematic is if there is no trajectory -- if low grades continue constantly or even sporadically throughout your academic career. This is an application killer. But it sounds like in your case there is a very clear trajectory. This is not uncommon, and I (as well as many others that I know of) have overcome it to go on to academic success in various degrees.

There are two ways to address it in an application -- I don't know much about Fulbright apps but I will talk as if it is a grad school app (I have the impression that this is not too far off). First, I think you do have to address it to some (possibly small) degree in the personal statement, even if it means leaving out something else. Trying to hide it is definitely a terrible idea. One thing to think about is ways in which this experience has made you a stronger X (where X in this case is being a teacher, it sounds like). I am absolutely convinced that nearly failing out of school as a freshman has made me a stronger teacher in the long run; unlike many people in academia who have never gotten a B in their life, I have some inkling of what might be happening when a student isn't doing well. I can be sympathetic to them, I have anecdotes to share with such students, and on the other hand I also know when they are likely BSing me.

Second, you should talk to your letter writers (maybe just your main one) about this and ask them to address it in their letters. They can probably be much more effective than you can, because of their greater objectivity. In my case I would guess that whatever my primary letter writer for PhD applications said about my academic history was very important.

Finally, you should keep in mind that if you don't get a Fulbright, the reason may well have nothing to do with your distant academic past.
posted by advil at 11:44 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

In my experience, the coverup is worse than the crime. Of course, this is coming from someone who's undergraduate past is marred with a couple of semesters of similar experience, essentially making it impossible for me to ever go to graduate school. Maybe if you find alternative ways to get you to the places you want to visit, you won't sweat these applications as much. Without the worry, I think you may actually do better in the application process.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:56 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

As someone who formerly worked in graduate admissions and who is now a faculty member in a graduate program, I have to agree 200% with advil here. If anything, I think your impression of academic "black marks" is quite the opposite of what is usually posted here. Many people have checkered academic pasts and have successfully turned them around.

Speaking only for myself (and I have no knowledge of Fulbright applications), if I were evaluating your transcripts for my grad program, I would be most interested in your most recent work. And I would be quite impressed that you graduated with a 3.92 GPA after flunking out, and would probably assume that whatever issues you had 10 years ago had been resolved.

Covering it up (or trying to), on the other hand, *would* make me very suspicious. Be honest, and be proud of all that you have accomplished.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:11 PM on July 21, 2009

Speaking as someone who has been (and will be) a graduate coordinator: we would have *zero* problems with your transcripts. What you describe happens to a lot of people. You had serious problems, you fixed them, and then you performed in spectacular fashion. If anything, we'd think that this testified to your drive and seriousness of purpose. As the others have said, dispatch the earlier transcript honestly but briefly, then describe your successes.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:04 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older Someone reassure me that I will indeed get joint...   |   Settings to back-up before wiping machine on... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.