While the grapevine may claim that eleventh grade is the one that really “counts" at admission-decision time, the truth is that senior year — especially the first semester — is equally important. And sooner or later, college officials will see that dreaded “D" in AP Chem and they won't be happy about it. So how should you handle this?
Presumably, since you're applying Early Decision to Duke, your transcript has been shipped off without the AP Chem grade (or any of the others from this term) on it. And it's possible that your Duke verdict will be issued on the basis of your first three years' performance, just as you've suggested. But it's also possible that, in the throes of evaluating your candidacy, a Duke official will contact your guidance counselor to ask for your most recent grades, so your AP Chem grade might affect your Duke ED outcome.
So your first step should be to have a conversation with your counselor, in case this request comes in. Your counselor can do a little damage control for you if you can tell him or her why you're struggling in chem and what you're doing to improve. You may be able to save yourself if you can report to your counselor that you've been seeking extra help from your teacher after school, working with a peer or professional tutor, using internet resources to try to stay afloat, etc.
If you've taken other tough sciences in the past (e.g., AP Physics and AP Bio) and done well, but somehow chemistry is a field you just don't “get," admission committees may cut you a break and overlook your "D," especially if the rest of your academic record is outstanding and includes exceptional accomplishments outside of the classroom as well. But if the other sciences on your transcript are the ones that the colleges consider a bit “fluffy" (e.g., environmental, forensics), then a low grade in AP Chem could turn out to be a deal-breaker for you at the hyper-competitive places like Duke.
Do you have to tell Duke right now that you're floundering in AP Chem? No you don't. But if you are accepted Early at Duke on the basis of your grades so far in high school, and the admission committee later learns of your "D" (which they will), then your acceptance might be rescinded. So if you get into Duke in the ED round, you should know by then if you're going to end up with a "D" in the chem class. If you are, you need to tell your Duke regional rep right away and ask if you will lose your spot in the freshman class. You should have other applications all ready to send, if it looks likely that Duke will rescind your offer. (If, with the holidays looming, you can't get any info from Duke about the impact of your "D" in December, you should go ahead and apply to colleges with January deadlines but then withdraw those applications the minute you hear back from Duke, if you're told that your acceptance will stand.)
The smartest plan, however, is to do whatever it takes to get that chemistry grade up to a "C" before Christmas. It's highly unlikely that admission officials will rescind an acceptance for one "C," but they might for a "D." Talk to your AP Chemistry teacher immediately and ask what steps you can take to boost your average. If you're not already attending extra-help sessions or getting tutoring, do both. Ask about extra-credit projects, too. If you end up with that "D" (or even with a "C"), you will want to provide admission officials with a list of the measures you took to do better. You don't want them to assume you were slacking.
All of your colleges will receive a mid-year report from your guidance counselor that will include your first-semester grades. So by the end of January, the cat will be out of the bag. Thus, if you do get a "D" in December and if you're not accepted ED to Duke, you should be proactive and contact all of your target colleges to warn them about the low grade and explain the efforts you made to do better.
“The Dean" could advise you more effectively if you'd said why you're doing so poorly in AP Chem after such a stellar track record throughout high school as well as high test scores. So you need to discuss your reasons for this downturn with your guidance counselor today so that he or she will be fully prepared to lobby on your behalf when admission officials call or email to ask about you. If your counselor can convince the admission folks that, while you may not be the next Louis Pasteur or Marie Curie, you're definitely not suffering from senioritis either, your single low grade may not hurt you at all.
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