Only a tiny percentage of high school students have perfect academic records. Then there are the good to average students. Among them, many have major blemishes on their records, and for various reasons. Maybe your freshman year was a hard transition and you did poorly academically. Maybe you failed a major course like English or biology. Perhaps you don’t do well with foreign languages, but the schools you want to apply to require you take at least two years of a language. Maybe you are a dunce at math, and your grades in math figure heavily in making you competitive for entering the better colleges. Perhaps you are a late bloomer, not “getting” how to do well in high school until your junior year. Maybe you are a great student, but you had family problems your junior year—the year that is most important to demonstrate on college applications what you can do. Or, you have terrible high school grades, but you have terrific SAT scores.
All of the scenarios above will affect how good your college application will look. But, there are ways to work around these academic problems to assure that you will still have a great college education. Below are some suggestions which can be applied to various circumstances.
A Supplemental Essay: An applicant may always attach a supplemental, or unrequired, essay to his or her application. Some college application forms even have a space for “Additional Information,” which is where you will supply an explanation about your special circumstances. Essays are a great way to explain circumstances like bad grades or family problems or learning difficulties or hard transitions, even a poor working relationship between a student and a teacher. If the application allows, simply write in: “See attached essay.” If not, enclose your essay with the application.
The trick to writing such an essay is not to whine. The circumstances need to be explained, but you also need to show you understand your responsibilities in the situation. You should show how you improved your grades and/or what you plan to do to better your academic performance in future. (See “Supplemental Essay Example.” )
Recommendations: Teachers and guidance counselors can be asked to supply explanations for blemishes on your record. For example, if you have done well in a math class, but you bombed your SAT math score, your math teacher will probably be pleased to write in his or her recommendation about your work ethic and excellent in-class performance to support the fact that your SAT scores do not reflect your true math ability. If you have experienced personal difficulties which have adversely affected your academic record, guidance counselors can explain that in their recommendations in a positive way to show you to be a worthy student.
PG Year: A post-graduate year at a private school can help you apply to college with a fresh record that proves you are ready. Late bloomers sometimes need a fifth year before they mature enough for academic challenges. Some students who have not been high achievers in high school have a change of mind or goal and bite the bullet by taking an extra year of high school to demonstrate their desire to go to college. A good record from an extra year at a good private school with challenging courses can make a college ignore the old SAT scores and grades and look at the fresh record. A PG year can also net you some good teacher recommendations, and provide you the confidence you need before beginning a college career.
Extra Course Work: If you are not doing well in courses colleges look at closely or if you have failed, maybe you need to retake classes or take more classes to get up to speed. If you fail English retake it in the summer. If you could have done well in biology last year but goofed off, consider taking it again, but this time take an AP Biology to show you have the ability. If you are a poor math student and need Algebra II for the college of your choice, take extra math classes your first 3 years of high school to prepare you for taking Algebra II your last year so you will do well. You might even consider taking a college class during the summer or during the school year. Once you are approved with “special student status” you could take a late-afternoon class or an evening class through a local college’s Continuing Education Division (C.E.D.) to show you are capable of college work, even if your high school grades do not reflect you ability.
Apply to a Community College for your First Two Years: If your grades and other application pieces will not earn you acceptance to the college of your choice, and if the above are not what you choose to do, there is an another “fix.” You can enter a community college or a small college with open admissions, that is, a college that will accept you without formal application, and take a full schedule of challenging courses. Once you do well as a full-time college student and establish a good academic record, you will be able to apply to your first-choice college as a transfer student. (See the “Basics on the College Transfer Process.” )
Interview: In addition to everything mentioned above, sometimes students can win the college admission process by acing the interview. Preparing your best answers for those difficult college interview questions will no doubt be instrumental in gaining admission. Be ready to talk about why you would make a great student for that specific college despite a blemished academic record in the past.