Getting into College if Your Grades are Less Than Stellar

By Patricia Gorden Neill - February 26th, 2013

In “College Bound: Where to Start?” we considered what college applications people look for in students applying to their colleges. Rigorous coursework in high school, good grades and strong GPA, and high SAT or ACT scores were the academic factors colleges consider. Do you still have a chance to get into college if your grades aren’t that great? The answer is a conditional yes. You can still be admitted to a college if your grades were less than stellar. However, you should do everything you can to make the rest of your college application shine diamond bright. Here’s what colleges will consider if your GPA isn’t what they’d like to see.

Upward Trend in Grades

You blew off your freshman year in high school, and got Cs and even Ds or Fs. You can redeem yourself if you work hard in the next few years. Many colleges leave freshman year out of your overall GPA during admissions. If you take challenging courses and show great improvement in your grades, this will reflect well on you. It shows that you got your act together and performed well academically. Keep in mind that hard work and doing your best does show and it does count. If your grades in 10th and 11th grade still aren’t that great but you pull off an excellent senior year, your GPA will be lower overall and this may limit your choice of colleges and getting admitted. Frankly, your work in high school is more important to colleges than your SAT or ACT scores. Steady good grades or an upward trend in grades show college admissions officers that you’re mature enough for college level work and that you are willing to put in the time and effort.

Keep in mind that the majority of colleges in the US accept most of the students who apply, over 75 percent. Some colleges have provisional or probationary admissions, students that they accept who will have to keep up their grades at a certain level or they will be asked not to return the next semester.

While some colleges will be willing to work with you, others may not. With a huge number of students applying to colleges every year, some universities and colleges are setting stricter admission requirements. Chances are, you’ll still be able to find a college that will accept you, but you’ll have to do a few other things to prove you’re a student they want to admit.

Do Well on College Admissions Tests

If you’re grades aren’t great, then do everything you can to do well on the SAT or ACT tests. Take the test more than once if you don’t do well the first time. Study for the test, and you’ll improve when you take it the next time. In fact, studying for the test can make all the difference in how well you do. There are even preparation courses for the tests if you need to go that route, and you have the time and money. You can take a free SAT practice test online at a variety of Web sites. Getting familiar with the SAT or ACT beforehand will help when you take the actual test.

Extracurricular Activities

College admission officers do look at your activities outside the classroom to see what kind of person you are. They’ll like it if you present a handsome profile in your extracurricular activities, but it won’t make up for bad grades if they think you can’t handle college level work. Still, it will help if you were on the basketball team, edited your high school newspaper, worked on the yearbook, volunteered at the local soup kitchen for a few years and composed lovely expressive poetry. Don’t try to do all those things, since quality of effort rather than quantity of endeavors is what is wanted here. Emphasize your activities on your application and make them stand out. If your test scores are excellent and you show yourself to be well-rounded and active in your high school and community, then you’ll stand a better chance of getting admitted.

Recommendations

Get your teachers to go to bat for you by writing strong letters of recommendation. If you excelled in English and biology but did poorly in math, ask the English and biology teachers to write to the college for you. Teachers in particular can explain your academic strengths and weaknesses. Be sure and give these folks enough time and information so they can address your college effectively. Your school’s guidance counselor is another good person to ask for this assistance. Other adults who likely know you well can also go to bat for you, such as coaches, your church’s pastor, employers and community leaders. Let them tell the story of why you nearly failed history in 9th grade, but then went on to write an extraordinary column on local history for the newspaper. Have them show your growth and development in areas where you did well. These letters can be the crowning grace of your application and get you in the door.

Write a Great Essay

The college application essay can make or break your appeal to admissions people. Catch their eye, make them laugh, express yourself with verve and style and show them who you are. Write with passion and from the heart. As any writer can tell you, this is not an easy task. For that reason, you should practice, practice and practice some more until your essay is thoroughly remarkable, an essay they’ll want to brag about to their peers at other colleges who also have to read thousands of these things every year. Your essay should shine, but it shouldn’t be overly polished, shall we say. Admissions personnel are all too aware of the college essay writing pros who are paid big bucks for producing slick college essays. Don’t go that route, tempting though it may be. Do the work yourself no matter how much grimacing and sweat it takes to write it. Write in your own unique voice and show them who you are. Make it great, and you can be proud of it for a lifetime. While a terrific essay won’t necessarily be your admittance ticket, a badly written, grammatically poor or boring essay could mean you get stuck in the no, thanks category.

Consider Community College

One tactic many students take when they don’t have the GPA for getting into college is attending a two year community college and getting good grades while they’re there. Most community colleges have open admissions. Your high school grades aren’t considered when you apply. Students with subpar high school grades attend community college, get good grades and raise their GPA, then they transfer to a four year college. They will graduate with the four year college’s degree under their belt and no one will be the wiser about the Ds they got in high school. This will take hard work and dedication, but it works for many students.

Take an Honest Look at Yourself

Keep in mind that college isn’t for everyone. If you hated high school, then chances are you won’t like college either. You’ll be on your own there when it comes to going to classes, doing the assignments and handing in work on time. If you couldn’t handle that in high school and received poor grades, college admissions people logically conclude that you probably won’t be up to it in college either. Only 50 percent of students who go to college finish with a degree, even after six years. Students with bad high school grades or who just plain don’t much like formal schooling are the ones most likely to drop out. There are many other things you can do besides going to college, technical or trade schools, apprenticeships, working, starting a small business, volunteering or just bumming around the world for a year or two. Think it through honestly. Then if you still want to go to college, even with bad grades, you can still get in by making the other portions of your application shine.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.