If you’re a student with a less-than-perfect academic, extracurricular, or disciplinary history, filling out college applications can often be a nerve-wracking experience. As all colleges (not just elite private institutions) become increasingly competitive each year, having a rough patch or two on your academic record can be extremely discouraging. It’s easy to feel as if a below-average GPA for your dream school or a history of disciplinary action will totally disqualify you, but the truth is, they might not.
College Applications and Personal Circumstances
What students often forget is that the admissions committee at your top-choice school is made up of humans — actual, real human beings — who know that the people whose applications they’re reviewing are humans, too. The admissions process at most private schools and many public schools is claimed to be holistic — meaning they consider the candidate as a person, not as a set of numbers.
You can use this opportunity to demonstrate you’ve grown both academically and personally since you got that shaky GPA or suspension, and admissions boards will appreciate your honesty.
Most applications provide space of around 500 words for you to provide any additional information you may wish to add to your application. If you feel as though there is a weakness in your application you’d like to tell admissions officers more about, this space provides an excellent opportunity to do so.
It’s important, however, to keep in mind when choosing whether to write something in the additional information section that you should not simply be making excuses for a bad GPA or trying to downplay getting suspended for cheating; whatever you choose to include should substantially improve and develop your application, as well as offer a perspective on your record and you as a person that is not otherwise reflected in your essays.
Tips for writing about low GPA, disciplinary record, etc.
If you feel as though choosing to write a short essay for the additional information section would add significantly to your application, we have a few tips for how to make the most of this space and how to effectively describe exceptional personal circumstances on your college applications.
Firstly, it’s important to be candid and straightforward. For example, if you were subject to disciplinary action for cheating, it’s not in your best interest to try and downplay your own responsibility for your actions or divert the blame to someone else; likely, this will strike admissions committees as a transparent attempt to avoid taking responsibility, and they’re unlikely to be moved by your story.
Rather, tell the truth about what happened (honestly and objectively) and emphasize what you learned from the experience rather than the negative consequences. Take the opportunity to draw a contrast between who you were when you made that mistake and who you are now — this allows you to demonstrate maturity and growth.
If you had several semesters where your GPA dropped below average, you may be concerned about whether this dip in your cumulative GPA will adversely affect your chances at your top choices. While grades are obviously extremely important, a 4.0 is not necessary to gain admission to a great school. If you’re worried about your average, the additional information section may provide you with a space to assure admissions officers that you’re a strong candidate nonetheless.
If you know there’s a point where your grades dropped in high school, begin by trying to identify the reasons why. Did you have additional stressors at home that prevented you from doing your work or from doing it as well as you could have? Did you suffer from an illness (physical or mental) that impeded your ability to perform to your highest ability at home and in class? If you can reference a clear and legitimate reason why your grades dropped, admissions officers will take that into account when considering your academic record.
Although they are certainly not ideal, B’s and even C’s aren’t automatic disqualifiers from admissions, even at the most selective colleges, and grades’ role in admissions is not as black and white as some might assume. Your GPA, whether it is exceptional or less than stellar, is not the be-all and end-all of your application.
The holistic admissions process is personal and considers applicants in all the ways their present themselves in their applications, and not solely based on their academic performance. As in the aforementioned situation, if you have had poor grades in the past, attempting to absolve yourself of responsibility for them likely won’t add much to your application — provide explanations, not excuses.
A bad grade can seriously damage your college application. Sometimes bad grades come without a particularly useful explanation; they are simply the result of a failure to work at the appropriate level for the course you’re taking. But some bad grades are the result of situations beyond your control. In those instances, it’s worth taking the time to provide the admissions committee with the context to understand those bad grades.
Malady or Other Ailments
In the case of illness or surgery, you should address this situation and not allow your application to suffer without giving the appropriate context. For example, illnesses such a mononucleosis can make it difficult for even the most diligent students to keep their grades at their normal level, as can surgery for significant injuries or illnesses. If you have poor grades one semester as a result of an illness, let the admissions committee know.
An extreme change in your living situation that has made it difficult for you to perform in school is also a reasonable explanation for poor grades. For example, an serious illness or death in your family might lead to increased responsibilities at home and substantial emotional turmoil, the combination of which will almost certainly impact your academics. Similarly, sudden financial changes in your family might require that you work after school (or increase your work hours if you already have a job) which could also impact your grades.
How to Approach the Admissions Council
How do you communicate this context to the admissions committee? You write what is called an addendum to your application. Do not use the main college essay to address this issue. There is a portion of the Common Application where you can inform colleges of "Anything else you want us to know" which is where you can provide any necessary context for poor grades..
Please be aware this is not an opportunity to make something up to explain away a bad grade that is simply the result of your not doing your best. College Admissions officers can tell if you’re making things up from a mile away. This is not the time to play games and put your college acceptance in jeopardy.
In conclusion, if you wind up in the dreaded situation of a personality conflict with a teacher and that conflict leads to a poor grade despite your best efforts, there isn't much that can be done. If this teacher’s reputation is known to your college counselor, you may want to bring it up with your counselor and see if there's any way it can be addressed in the counselor’s write up that is part of your application. But you will probably just have to grin and bear it.