Oct. 4, 2018
“The Dean" is not aware of any college that does not expect a high school transcript from freshman applicants. (Some colleges do allow students to self-report grades initially, but will then request an official transcript for confirmation after acceptance.) So unless your high school does not grade its students at all (which is rare but does happen), your grades will be required, along with a cumulative GPA if your high school computes one — and most do. (Even students who are home-schooled or who have dropped out of high school and earned a GED will be expected to supply a transcript from whatever time they did spend in school.)
So that's the bad news. But the good news is that admission officials are not going to focus on only your cumulative GPA, but also on its make-up. Thus, if you tended to get great grades in math and science but terrible grades in English and history (or vice-versa), your successes won't be lost on the admission staff. Similarly, if you took an especially grueling course load, they'll note that too. And if your freshman and sophomore grades were awful but your junior and senior grades are better, the earlier ones won't carry a lot of clout.
At the most selective colleges ... the ones that we all hear about way too much ... it's nearly impossible to be admitted without top-notch grades in every area. But at the vast majority of institutions, admission officials are more forgiving. Some colleges even have “Open Admission" (no one is refused) or no minimum GPA. And the evaluation process is almost always “holistic," no matter where you apply, meaning that admission committees will scrutinize your entire transcript, not just your GPA (as noted above) and are interested in the explanation you provide to put your low grades in context.
The “Additional Information" section of your applications (or a separate, unsolicited letter) can be a good place to tell admission committees why you were able to earn high test scores but not high grades. While you don't want your explanation to be full of multiple excuses (this is likely to come off as whiny and will work against you), there may be valid reasons for your low grades that are worth sharing. These could include (but aren't limited to) ...
- A learning disability, perhaps undiagnosed or untreated
- Medical or mental health problems, current or past
- A tumultuous or unhappy family/personal life
- Lack of resources (e.g., no computer, internet or quiet study space at home)
- Need to work long hours at a paying job to help with household expenses
- An overall unchallenging, boring school environment that led you to pursue other passions while you neglect your studies
Granted, you won't get a ton of compassion from the admission folks for this last one, but at least it will help them to see why your grades and test results aren't in sync. In particular, if you have devoted a lot of your time to interests outside of school (especially “academic" ones like reading, writing, music, art, website or app design, etc.), be sure that your application includes details. Students often believe that the “Activities" section is just for organized school- or community-based endeavors and not for personal pursuits. Yet these personal pursuits can be the most interesting to admission offices and will help candidates stand out in a crowd.
Whenever admission officials spot grades and test scores that don't match, with the latter being significantly better, they tend to assume that the student hasn't committed appropriate effort to school work, and it's likely be a negative when acceptance decisions are made. So if this wasn't the case for you, be sure to say so. While admission committees will never shove low grades entirely onto the back burner, by providing some context for your grades, you could improve your chances at the colleges where you are a borderline applicant.
Also in the “good news" department:
- You can use the College Confidential “Advanced Search" tool to find colleges where you may be a contender for a merit scholarship, even with low grades. After clicking the link above, enter your preferences for major, location, school type, etc. Next, using the pull-down GPA menu, select your actual GPA. Then leave the “Test Scores" question blank. Your “Results" list may alert you to colleges you haven't considered that routinely admit students with your GPA and that might offer you a scholarship thanks to your test scores.
- Colleges commonly request a high school transcript from transfer applicants, yet they put little emphasis on it when college grades are strong. So if you can't get into your top-choice college this time around, if you go elsewhere for a year — or especially for two — and do well, your high school GPA shouldn't hurt you when you apply to transfer.
Bottom line: Even though you can't vanquish a bad GPA from your admissions process right now, it shouldn't keep you from finding acceptable — and maybe even exciting — college options.
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