Low GPA? How to Emphasize Your Application Strengths

Don’t let your low grades on you transcript rule out your college options.

Photo: Thinkstock

By D. Aileen Dodd

While a stellar academic record is important to college acceptance, students with a few blemishes on their transcripts can still find a place in higher education.

Transcripts aren’t the only academic indicator admissions officers consider when evaluating applicants.

Bad grades on a transcript won’t automatically shut a student out of college.

Whether the low marks are the result of illness, laziness or challenging honors courses, a student's resiliency to bounce back and improve their grades is viewed by some admissions officers as a positive character trait.

Explain Your Academic Progress

Lower grades like Cs, Ds and Fs on report cards should be explained on college essays so admissions officers can make a fair evaluation of a student’s portfolio. “If you had problems in French sophomore year, but you got your act together and your grades are trending up, that’s good,” said Miriam Parker, head of College Counseling Center of Atlanta. “There is a place on the college application to talk about (that). You can explain anything.”

If you dropped a hard course, suffered an illness, had a death in the family or your parents went through a divorce and your grades dropped, that also can be explained, Parker added.

In some cases grade point averages have been sunk by a change in curriculum, such as tougher math courses, and the national push toward exposing more students to Advanced Placement classes with college content.

Take an Advanced Placement Course

More than 18,000 schools worldwide participate in the AP Program. In 2011, nearly 2 million students worldwide took 3.4 million AP Exams. Taking a tough course shows that a good student is willing to try challenging work. That can overshadow an average grade, experts say.

Transcripts aren’t the only academic indicator admissions officers consider when evaluating applicants. College exam scores also show whether a student could handle higher education.

High Test Scores Can Help

Students with above-average SAT or ACT scores could sway some schools to overlook a poor grade. That’s why many high schools across the country offer college exam preparation courses to give students a leg up. National research found that SAT prep courses could raise math scores by 20 points and critical reading scores by 10 points, according to a 2009 study by the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

But, if college exam scores are high and high school transcript grades are weak — that is a problem even a smartly written essay can’t fix.

No Matter What – There are Options

“For some students, there is no explanation,” Parker said. “They didn’t try.”

Some students turn to community colleges to make an academic comeback and reapply after two years of improved grades. Others find four-year colleges willing to admit students with a checkered academic past and offer them remedial help.

Messing up in high school isn’t the end of the world, Parker said. “I have had kids who were struggling in high school that were able to go to college and get a good general education. A lot of times, small liberal arts colleges look at the individual student and that is a better way to go than large institutions that are more numbers driven.”

Quick Tips

  • Take ownership of your learning — if you are struggling in a class, get a tutor or seek help from a teacher.
  • Preparing for the SAT or ACT can help you to improve your test scores. A good score can offset the impact of an average or below average grade on a transcript.
  • Consider community college if you are struggling in several classes. Enrolling in a four-year institution and dropping out or taking longer than for years to graduate can be costly.

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