May 18, 2020
Question: How should I handle a sudden significant decline in my grades? I had nearly straight A's and very good standardized test scores until the end of my junior year. Then I got sick and I was stressed by some family issues, and my grades took a nose dive. Example: I had all A's in Biology but failed the final exam, so my grade dropped to a B. I haven't gotten my scores from the spring SAT subject tests but I think they'll be low as well. I don't want to disclose the specifics of my illness and family issues on my college app. Did I blow my admission chances to top-tier schools?
First of all, take a deep breath. Slipping to B's from A's is not a major catastrophe, although I can understand how it can stress you, especially with all you're probably reading and hearing about the uber-competitive nature of college admissions.
The best thing you can do at this point is to move on. Start out strong in September and try to get those grades back to where they had previously been. If you were considering an Early Action application to a "Reach" college, you might want to hold off until you've produced a full semester of your best possible grades. However, "Early Decision" can often provide a big boost in the admissions process. So if your first-choice college offers ED, you'll have to weigh the advantages of an ED application versus the disadvantage of not having a full semester of top-notch 12th-grade work under your belt when you apply. (If your high school gives quarter or trimester grades--and yours are good--then ED might be a reasonable option after all.)
Since you don't feel comfortable disclosing the details of your illness and family issues, then you might want to use the "Additional Information" section of your applications (or a brief, separate letter) to simply say something like, "When you review my transcript and test scores, you'll notice a dip at the end of my junior year. I was struggling with significant family problems but have since made every effort to get back on track ... as you can see from my current senior grades."
You also might want to have a chat with your guidance counselor. What does he or she know about your illness and family problems? If your counselor is in the loop on all of this, ask what he or she is planning to include in your letter of reference. If you wish, you can also ask your counselor to mention that you had some family difficulties that you've surmounted ... but without providing any details that you're not comfortable revealing.
Finally, keep in mind that there are plenty of great colleges out there. Don't be single-mindedly set on "top tier." If your problems and ill health continue to dog you, don't beat yourself up if you're not back to all A's next fall. Even if you don't end up at the college you think you want to go to right now, you can certainly find a place where you'll be happy, engaged, and successful ... and you'll position yourself well for graduate school, if that's in your long-range plan.