As a high school student in Tennessee, Austin Herrera knew he wanted to go to college. But with grades ranging from A’s to D’s, he also knew his options would be limited.
Herrera says he was too distracted in school, and his reputation as a class clown, participation in extracurricular activities and lack of interest and effort led to a low GPA. Dyslexia, he says, was another hurdle that affected his grades and confidence.
“I doubted myself and sort of gave up on myself when I saw the grades that I had because I would work hard and study, but I still came out with a low grade,” he wrote in an email.
Herrera switched high schools his senior year and used the new atmosphere to change direction and focus on the future. Realizing that his past academic problems would affect his college admission chances, Herrera used his personal statement to acknowledge his grades, discuss his learning disability and show his interest in studying business and film.
“I explained dyslexia — what it was and how I learned. I just explained that I’m a very hard worker and passionate,” he says.
Herrera was accepted into two of the five schools he applied to and went on to study film at Columbia College Chicago several years ago.
For students who struggle academically in high school, the college application process can be especially stressful. A low GPA can prevent teens from getting accepted into top universities — like the Ivy League schools — and other selective colleges, but there are still options.
Admissions experts say high schoolers can explain an academic dip in their college applications and spend the rest of their senior year making their applications more appealing. Another piece of advice: Students should discover the root cause of those academic shortcomings.
“I think they need to explore what is getting in the way. Are they not studying? Are they not studying efficiently? Is there an unidentified learning or attentional issue? Is there an emotional problem? Is something getting in the way that they’re not sharing?” says Janet Rosier, a former admissions consultant and author of “May 2: Practical Advice for College Freshmen and Their Parents.”
Students should talk to a counselor to examine all their options, but the following six strategies can help those with bad grades strengthen their college applications:
— Take responsibility and offer an explanation for the low GPA.
— Get recommendation letters from teachers and counselors.
— Get good standardized test scores.
— Wait to apply and improve your GPA.
— Consider alternative admissions programs.
— Start at a community college.
Take Responsibility and Offer an Explanation for the Low GPA
There are many reasons a student’s grades can drop, including family issues, illness, a switch in teachers during the year or a lack of maturity. And now the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted many schools to shift classes online and disrupted the in-person educational experience for millions of high school students, can be added to that list.
Admissions officials recognize that an applicant’s GPA isn’t always an indicator of capability, but students need to write an honest explanation about their grades, experts say.
“Everybody makes mistakes; there’s not one perfect person out there. But how do you learn from those mistakes — if you can explain it thoughtfully and in a mature way, oftentimes a college is going to understand that,” says Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, an educational consulting company based in New York.
Students can discuss poor grades in a college application essay, also called a personal statement, or in the additional information field on the Common Application.
“Anything that the student can provide to explain that (GPA) would be helpful,” says Monica Brockmeyer, senior associate provost for student success at Wayne State University in Detroit. “They should be transparent, because (GPA) is already visible to admissions officers through their transcripts. Colleges already know, so they’re looking to understand the situation and circumstances better.”
She adds that admissions officials understand that “every learner is on a journey.”
The coronavirus pandemic may have blown some students off course in 2020. Rosier advises those who struggled to explain the challenges they faced on the new optional section added to the Common Application, which asks about the personal effects that COVID-19 had. Students can use this section to explain the absence of test scores, a dip in their GPA or other areas that may require additional context, such as explaining why they took pass-fail classes and why those appear on their transcript.
“It is crucial that students explain to the colleges any drop in grades, whether this was COVID-19 related or because of other issues. Colleges understand that COVID-19 has been disruptive for many students and in various ways,” Rosier says.
Get Recommendation Letters From Teachers and Counselors
A good word from a high school counselor or teacher who knows a student well can go a long way in college admissions, experts say.
“Sometimes a great letter of recommendation can come from a teacher who has seen a student greatly improve their grade and go from very low to very high, even if the student has higher grades in other classes,” Cohen says.
High school students should develop close relationships with counselors and teachers and have an explicit discussion about what they would like addressed before a letter is written, experts say. This is another area where students can touch on challenges prompted by COVID-19, including a slip in GPA.
Get Good Standardized Test Scores
High ACT or SAT scores won’t cancel out a low GPA, but in addition to a good explanation and recommendation letters, high test scores can help students show that they have the ability to succeed in college.
Jeffrey Baylor, executive director of admissions at West Texas A&M University, says that a holistic review of an applicant will factor in test scores, GPA, class rank, recommendations, extracurricular activities and the high school curriculum.
For students with a low GPA, one option he suggests is to retake the ACT or SAT and invest in a study guide.
However, 2020 ACT and SAT cancellations due to coronavirus concerns made it impossible for many students to take the test even once. Fortunately for applicants, colleges have proven flexible on this point, with many temporarily shifting to test-optional admissions. “Due to COVID-19, the ability to take the standardized tests was out of the control of many students and colleges understand that,” Rosier says.
Wait to Apply and Improve Your GPA
Early admission is extremely competitive, so experts recommend students with poor grades on their transcripts apply during regular admission and use the extra time to take challenging courses and improve their GPA.
“Focusing on your grades now is critical. There are lots of different ways to improve your grades,” Cohen says.
Students should use their teachers as tutors, visiting them frequently to discuss what to focus on and what weaknesses to address, she says.
Consider Alternative Admissions Programs
For those eyeing a four-year college, an alternative admissions program may be the way in. If a student’s GPA is below the school’s standards, he or she may still be admitted under certain conditions. As part of the program, students receive additional academic support in their first year of college and beyond, depending on the curriculum.
One such example is Academic Pathways to Excellence at Wayne State, which focuses on sharpening students’ academic skills as they enter college.
“It provides them a transition period between high school and college to really understand how college learning is different from high school learning, to get extended support or even some remediation of writing skills or mathematics skills or other barriers like that,” Brockmeyer says.
Brockmeyer did not comment on the lowest accepted GPA at Wayne State. But students looking for colleges that accept a 2.0 GPA or similar may be well served by looking into alternative admissions programs.
Start at a Community College
For students without the academic background needed for a four-year institution, admissions officials recommend attending a community college. That’s especially true if students need to catch up on developmental coursework.
Baylor says West Texas A&M advises underperforming students to consider attending community college in the summer after high school graduation and completing six hours of college-level credit while earning a C or better in those courses.
He also says students should consider attending a community college in the fall or spring semester, earn 12 hours of college-level credit with a 2.0 minimum GPA and then apply to a four-year college as a transfer student. That time in a community college can help demonstrate that a student is ready for university-level coursework.
Admissions officials want to make sure applicants will be able to thrive in college. Students with a bad GPA will need to prove that their past poor grades aren’t indicative of who they are now and their capabilities as college students.
“I think that a lot of students don’t understand how much all of what they do in high school impacts their overall GPA,” says Samantha Taylor, director of admissions operations at the University of North Texas.
“And I have seen students who had a bad semester or two really turn it around and come back, particularly if they did poorly in their freshman year and then got more serious with their sophomore, junior and senior years,” she says. “But students who have obviously been consistently performing poorly over quite a bit of time, it’s difficult to turn it around.”
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Update 01/27/21: This article has been updated with new information.