5 Steps to Get into College with a Bad GPA


Kate Sliunkova

AdmitYogi, Stanford MBA & MA in Education



7 min read

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.

If your high school grades aren't up to par, there's a good chance that admissions counselors at a top 20 university will lean towards not accepting you. Even with amazing essays and glowing letters of recommendation, a low GPA might still lead to a rejection. It's a tough pill to swallow, but you might need to adjust your expectations. However, don't lose hope, as there are still a few tips to improve your odds.

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

There are many reasons why a student's grades might drop, such as family issues, getting sick, having a new teacher in the middle of the school year, or even the recent COVID situation. Admissions officers know that a student's GPA doesn't always show their true potential. After all, nobody's perfect, and everyone makes mistakes.

So, the important thing is to talk about how you've learned from your not-so-great grades. If you can give a genuine, straightforward, and grown-up explanation for your low GPA and how you've worked to make it better, the admissions folks will be grateful. A perfect spot to share this is in the Common App's additional info section, or even in a college application essay (just don't make the not-so-great grades the main point of the essay, though; try to weave them into your essay topic in a natural way — we'll chat more about 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.

Sure, community colleges might not have the same prestige as Caltech or Harvard, but they still offer some great educational opportunities, especially when it comes to the core classes you'll need for a four-year degree. What's even better is that community colleges are there for students who might not have the grades to get into a four-year college straight after high school. In other words, they'll take you in even if your grades aren't the best.

So, you can spend a couple of years at a community college, get awesome grades, and use those to make yourself a better candidate for transferring to another school. Plus, community colleges offer great educational value, which means your college journey will be more affordable.

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.

No matter the cause, focus on showcasing the challenges you've faced in your essay, the efforts you've made to conquer them, and your plans to flourish in the future, even with the obstacles that led to your low grades.

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.

A lot of schools, including well-known ones, offer special programs for students who don't have the typical academic background. This might include extra help and tutoring during the initial semesters, a different dorm, or alternative ways to get admitted, especially for students who faced financial difficulties, belong to underrepresented groups, or dealt with family problems during 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.


High school can be tough, and even the smartest kids can make bad choices or face challenges, which can lead to a low GPA. This might make getting into college seem like a long shot. But don't worry! It's still possible to get into a good four-year college, maybe even your dream school, by putting in the effort and having the right approach to your application. Best of luck!

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