7 Ways to Address a Bad Grade on Your College Application
“Bad” can be a very relative term, particularly when attached to high school grades. For a high-achieving teen with their eyes on gaining acceptance into a prestigious college, an A- or a B might feel like the onset of Armageddon. For an average high school student, a “bad” grade may mean an objectively poor outcome like a D or an 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 crying tears of despair.
To ensure that this article is of relevance to you, whoever you happen to be, let’s define a bad grade as one that is significantly lower than your typical academic performance, a relative blemish on an otherwise consistent record of achievement. Another clarification before we launch into the list of action steps, is that we aren’t talking about a bad grade on a test or paper—your prospective colleges will never see that, so it is irrelevant to this conversation. One assessment or assignment does not determine your marking period grade. Further, many high schools submit transcripts that don’t even display marking period, semester, or midterm/final exam grades—they only show the final grade. Even if you received a poor grade in one marking period and the college can see it, they will likely ignore it. Again, it’s the final grades that they are interested in. Now that we are all on the same page, let’s dive in and discuss how to address a poor final grade on your college application:
1. Use essays or short response questions as a chance to explain the story behind the grade that is not like the others. Perhaps you were just being diagnosed with a learning disability or ADHD, 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, a philosophical crisis, or full- blown ennui, it’s worth highlighting here.
2. Elicit recommendations from those who are familiar with the challenge(s) you faced (your counselor may be ideal) and can speak to your growth process. 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. Accentuate your strengths through AP Tests and SAT Subject Tests. If you score well on standardized tests in AP English and AP U.S. History, your poor precalculus grade will be less noticeable; particularly if you are, for example, a future political science major (more on this in a moment). Contrarily, if you feel like a lower grade was attributable to a factors such as a poor rapport with a teacher or perhaps a sheer lack of effort on your part, but you still believe you know the material, use a standardized test as a way to prove it. You may have gotten a C- in biology in part because of a fraught relationship with the instructor, but your 750 SAT Biology Subject Test score shows a prospective college that you still mastered the material.
4. Craft a narrative about your future major and career interests that helps to minimize the damage. Let’s say that you aced AP Computer Science and AP Calculus but bombed a history elective. Just 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 where you received a lower-than-typical grade, the sting is lessened.
5. Study for the SAT/ACT. If a bad grade (or three) has dropped you GPA below the average levels of current freshman 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.
6. 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. For example, at Stanford University, the average freshman GPA was 3.95 and only 1% of accepted students had lower than a 3.5 GPA. Freshman at Purdue University possessed an average GPA of 3.6 and 27% of admits had under a 3.5. 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 Stanford-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.
7. Don’t let things snowball. We recognize that this is less of an actionable step than the previous six entries, but make no mistake—it is no less important. Just as in the rest of life, we cannot let one small setback derail our ambitions or render us without hope. It’s easy for high school perfectionists to fall victim to myopia, believing that one out-of-character grade will crush their dreams: “Now that I won’t get into an Ivy League school, I might as well just give up.” Break out of this pattern of thinking, seek out free therapy with your friends, guidance counselor, and parents, and then move forward in working toward your goals.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).