Nov. 13, 2020
My son is applying to some high-level schools even though his grades don't reflect his intelligence. He came across a few teachers that were not kind to him during his high school years, and that hurt his GPA. I am encouraging him to discuss this as his essay topic so the schools will know it was the teachers' fault that he didn't get a high enough GPA. He wants to write about the lessons about life he learned from getting a serious illness as a child and overcoming that. I think the grade discussion is more important in the essay. What should we do?
No, no, a thousand times no! (I've probably said this nearly a thousand times myself and only recently learned that it harks back to a Betty Boop movie from nearly a century ago.) But fun facts aside, “The Dean" is adamant that your son not write his college essay about his troubles with teachers and their impact on his GPA.
The personal statement is one of the few places where an applicant can highlight a meaningful experience, idea, achievement, etc. If your son chooses instead to discuss his poor teachers and unfairly low grades, not only will he miss the important opportunity to show off his strengths, but above all, it's almost inevitable that his essay will sound whiny and even entitled. Granted, a truly exceptional writer may be able to tackle this topic successfully, especially if the essay is rife with humor, insight and perhaps a touch of self-deprecation. But the typical teenage writer (even a good one) is more likely to produce a final product that will alienate admission officials. Remember, most of these folks have read applications from seniors who have overcome obstacles far more daunting than inadequate teaching — and who have maintained near-perfect grades in the process.
In some situations, however, when a teacher is especially poor or when there is a student/teacher personality conflict, it may be appropriate for the student to explain it in the “Additional Information" section of the application. Better yet, if a teacher is well known in a high school for being problematic, the student can sit down with the guidance counselor and say something like, “I realize that many others at this school have had difficulties with Mr. Snurd, and I'm wondering if you could mention this in the letter of reference that you write for me, explaining that my 'C' in English doesn't really represent my abilities but is more the result of Mr. Snurd's erratic grading policies."
It can be far more helpful to have the information about a substandard teacher's effect on grades coming from a counselor than directly from the student. BUT ... in your son's case, it sounds like his struggles were with several teachers, not just with one. So if he were to explain this — whether in his essay, in “Additional Information" or via his counselor — the strategy is almost sure to backfire. Admission officials do understand that a student and a teacher may not always see eye-to-eye. But if this happens multiple times, they are going to be more likely to doubt the student than they are to impugn the teacher.
In any case, “high-level" colleges typically don't admit students whose grades fall below their median levels unless there are clearly extenuating circumstances, and your son's situation won't fill the bill. Admission committees are very accustomed to hearing about how an applicant's grades (or test scores) don't reflect the student's talents. And while this may indeed be true, it rarely has an impact on the final admission verdict. So as your son creates his college list, it's fine for him to include some “Reach" schools, but he should also make sure he finds options he likes where his GPA is well within the normal acceptance range.
As for the essay topic that he suggested himself, it's a fairly common one but that doesn't mean it's off limits. If your son can take his own, unique approach to his story, then it doesn't really matter if the topic isn't unusual. The Dean's only warning here is that, as noted earlier, admission officers see lots of submissions from candidates who have surmounted obstacles. For instance, some students have battled cancer, even during high school, or they've dealt with other huge misfortunes such as sibling or parent death, poverty and homelessness. So if your son decides to focus on his own serious illness and the life lessons it taught him, just be sure that he is aware of what else is out there.
“The Dean," who is indeed old enough to remember Betty Boop, is also old enough to recall far too many essays from students whose setbacks may have seemed very challenging at the time but weren't major hardships when viewed with adult hindsight. (A former Little Leaguer who missed the All-Star tourney due to a relentless case of chicken pox springs to mind.) And adjudicators with adult hindsight will be reading your son's essay. So if you worry that his topic isn't a solid one, don't revert back to the troublesome teacher topic either! Instead, ask “The Dean" again, and I'll try to point your son in a new direction.
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at email@example.com.