5 Ways to Address a Bad Grade on Your College Application

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"Bad” can be a very relative term, particularly when attached to high school grades. For high-achieving teens with their eyes on gaining acceptance into a prestigious college, an A- or B might feel like the onset of Armageddon. For average high school students, a “bad” grade may result in an objectively poor outcome, like a D or F. In reality, two students can receive a C on the same day and pass each other in the hallway — one crying tears of joy, the other wailing in despair. 

To ensure that this article is of relevance to your student, whomever he or she happens to be, let’s define a bad grade as one that is significantly lower than your student’s typical academic performance — a relative blemish on an otherwise consistent record of achievement. Consider sharing these tips with your student.

1. Use essays or short response questions as a chance to explain the story behind a grade that is not like the others. Perhaps you had just been diagnosed with a learning disability or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or maybe your parents were going through a separation. Even if the reason is unspectacular but still gives insight into you as a human being — a bout of depression or a philosophical crisis — it’s worth highlighting here.

2. Obtain recommendations from those who are familiar with the challenge(s) you faced and can speak to your growth process (your counselor may be ideal). Colleges expect that, within their own rigorous and challenging environment, you will experience a setback or two over the course of four years. How you responded to adversity in high school can impress an admissions officer who is looking for students with grit and resilience, factors that predict collegiate success.

3. Craft a narrative about your future major and career interests that helps minimize the damage. Let’s say you aced AP Computer Science and AP Calculus but bombed a history elective. By stating your intended major as electrical engineering, for example, you’ve already minimized the importance of that unrelated elective mishap. The same goes for a humanities-focused student who struggled in math. If an intended area of study is less directly related to the subject in which you received a lower-than-typical grade, you can lessen the sting.

4. Study for the SAT/ACT. If a bad grade (or three) has dropped your GPA below the average levels of current freshmen at your target schools, balance this out by scoring above those colleges’ mean scores on standardized tests. Research has demonstrated that 20 hours of targeted study on Kahn Academy’s free website produces an average SAT gain of 115 points. A bad grade or two may have dropped your GPA slightly under the mean of your dream school’s freshman class but, thanks to your intensive preparation, your SAT scores go up to the 75th percentile of accepted students at your target institution. Suddenly, that wart on your transcript is way less damaging to your admissions prospects.

5. Target schools that allow for imperfect transcripts. As hard as we try, perfection eludes most of us. Some schools are more forgiving of a hiccup or two than others. At Duke University, for example, the average freshman GPA is over 4.0. Freshmen at High Point University possess an average GPA of 3.2. Both schools accept students with exceptional records of achievement; one is forgiving of a blemish, the other is not. Students with amazing but imperfect transcripts should not be compiling a college list full of Duke University-like schools, hoping that they win the admissions lottery. Rather, targeting other stellar universities that have a proven record of, at least sometimes, taking students like you is a better recipe for a successful outcome.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at collegetransitions.com.

Categories: College Planning