5 Steps to Get into College with a Bad GPA


Ananth Veluvali @ Stanford University

5 Steps to Get into College with a Bad GPA

The Elephant in the Room: The Bad News First

We won't sugarcoat it: grades are a significant aspect of how colleges evaluate prospective students. It's true that grades aren't everything – more on that later – but, especially at Ivy League and other renowned colleges, applicants who don't meet a specific level of high school academic success will simply not be considered.

The most competitive colleges use an Academic Index, which assigns numbers to your SAT scores and GPA. Originally designed to ensure that Ivy League student athletes weren't given special consideration for their athletic abilities, they've since morphed into a sort of screening system that weeds out applicants with lower scores. This index score is not utilized by every college, and it is not used in the same way by all of them, but it is widely employed by the top-ranked universities in the United States.

That means that if your high school grades are inadequate, admissions counselors at a top 20 university will heavily lean towards rejecting you. Even if your essays and letters of recommendation are very strong, if you have a low GPA, you’ll likely be rejected. It's a harsh reality, but you may have to lower your expectations. That said, there are still some tips to better your chances.

1. Accept Responsibility and Provide an Explanation for Your Low GPA

A student's grades can fall for a variety of reasons, including family troubles, illness, a change in teachers during the school year, or (more recently) COVID. Admissions officers understand that a student's GPA isn't necessarily indicative of their abilities. Indeed, everyone makes mistakes; there is no such thing as a perfect person.

What matters, then, is explaining how you have learned from your poor grades. If you can provide an honest, clear, and mature explanation for your low GPA and what you’ve done to improve it, admissions officers will appreciate it. A great place to do this is in the Common Application’s extra information area, or in a college application essay (do not make low grades the focus of the essay, though; see if you can naturally include them in your essay topic — more on this later).

2. The Community College Pathway

If you start thinking about college applications early enough, you may have a year or two to improve your grades, ace certain exams, and boost your GPA. However, if it is already the summer before your senior year, you may not be able to make significant changes to your grades and you can't retake your final two years of high school. So, how can you raise your GPA? By beginning your college career at a two-year community college.

Community colleges are clearly not as prestigious as Caltech or Harvard, but many of them provide excellent educational possibilities, particularly in the core coursework required for your eventual four-year degree. Best yet, community colleges serve students who may not have the academic credentials to enter a four-year college directly out of high school. To put it another way, they'll accept you even if your grades aren't stellar.

You can thus spend two years at a community college earning outstanding marks and using those grades to make yourself a stronger candidate for transfer to another school. Furthermore, community institutions provide exceptional educational value, so your college career will be less expensive.

3. Concentrate on Your Narrative Journey

What if your grades aren't bad, but merely mediocre? Your Academic Index may be good enough to be noticed by your top choice institution. However, you may be concerned that your grades are insufficient to secure the admission letter you've always desired. Now for the good news: while grades are significant, they only account for 20 to 30 percent of your application. Depending on the school, your essay may be worth the same amount.

This is where you can distinguish yourself. Don't dismiss your poor grades. At the very least, address them directly in your cover letter. However, creating a fascinating narrative around your scores and using it in your essay is a better method. Perhaps your home life is volatile and hectic, impairing your capacity to study and complete schoolwork. Perhaps you had to invest a significant amount of time to caring for an ill family member. Some children struggle because budgetary constraints make it difficult for them to obtain the technologies required to excel in school today. Other pupils have learning disabilities or haven't figured out the best tactics for studying and recalling content yet.

Whatever the reason, use your essay to highlight the difficulties you've encountered, how you've tried to overcome them, and how you intend to thrive in the future despite the issues that caused you to receive poor marks.

Remember, this isn't about making excuses. Be honest about the difficulties you've encountered. They could even be personal challenges, in which you discuss poor decisions you've made and what transpired to cause you to change direction and prepare for a more disciplined college life. Sincerity and self-reflection might help you appear to be a valuable member of a college's student body.

4. Obtain High Standardized Test Scores

High ACT or SAT scores will not completely overcome a poor GPA, but they can assist students and demonstrate that they have the ability to thrive in college.

An applicant's overall evaluation will take into account test scores, GPA, class rank, references, extracurricular activities, and the high school curriculum. As a result, students with a poor GPA may wish to take the ACT or SAT and purchase a study guide.

5. It never hurts to inquire.

Many schools, even prestigious institutions, have unique programs for students with non-traditional academic backgrounds. This could involve remedial aid and tutoring for your first few semesters, a unique dorm, or alternative admission processes, particularly for students who struggled financially, hail from marginalized groups, or encountered family issues in high school.

You can learn more about these programs by visiting the college's website, but the best approach to learn more is to directly contact the admissions office. Tell them you're a possible applicant with poor high school grades, and ask if they have any programs for individuals who have previously failed academically.


Even the brightest children can make terrible decisions or endure adversity in high school. As a result, students may receive a poor GPA, making admission to college appear impossible. Even with poor grades, though, it is feasible to gain admission to a decent four-year college – perhaps even your ideal school – through hard work and the correct application strategy. Good luck!



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