Poor Grades in High School: When to Explain and When You Shouldn't


Poor Grades in High School: When to Explain and When You Shouldn't

Grades are a vital component to your application. Along with standardized test scores, they make up the “hard factors” considered for admission to college. But unlike test scores, your grades cover your entire high school career. Admissions officers will analyze your transcript, look for patterns or discrepancies, and form a comprehensive picture of your academic promise.

With these high stakes in mind, what happens if you have less than stellar grades? Should you explain softer grades in your application? If so, how should you go about it? You shouldn’t always explain them, especially in places that don’t ask for them. Or, if your reasons for poor grades in high school could have been easily avoided.

Consider the points below to decide whether it would be strategic to explain your poor grades in high school or better to just let them be.

DO Explain:

If You Have a Dip in Grades Due to Extenuating Circumstances

You should take the time to explain a unique situation that led to poor grades in high school. For example, say your mom suffered a serious illness when you were a junior in high school and you had to take on a part-time job and care for your younger siblings. Or, you had a viral infection that kept you lying in bed for months. During such times, your GPA might have dropped a few points as you fell behind on school work. An admissions officer would understand that your grade decrease is due to outside responsibilities or illness, and not due to a failure to make enough time or effort.

Examples of extenuating circumstances include serious illness or injury, financial hardship, undiagnosed learning disabilities, loss of a close family member, natural disasters, and other events that significantly impact you. If you’ve experienced one of the above, don’t hesitate to mention this context on your application.

If the Poor Grades Were Temporary

Note that an explanation for poor grades in high school is more effective if your low grades were only temporary and you can show recovery or path towards improvement. If you had a rough year because of mental health, physical health, or family trouble, your grades might have slipped. However, if circumstances improved and you picked yourself up, you should have had a better performance the following year. Admissions officers appreciate students who’ve taken their academics more seriously after times of difficulty. If this is the case, go ahead and let them know why your sophomore or junior year grades were temporarily low, and do not reflect your overall intellectual prowess.

Ultimately, Admissions Officers Want to Understand Your Context

It’s in your best interest to provide any relevant information that would help them advocate for you. Whether you should explain or not varies on a case-by-case basis. Every reason for poor grades in high school doesn’t fall within the same category. If you’re confused about whether your reason for low academic performance is worth mentioning in college applications, ask your high school college counselor.

DON’T Explain:

If You Have a Weak Excuse For Your Lower Grades

In this case, an explanation on your application will be counterproductive. It will highlight the fact that your grades are low and make admissions officers think you’re circumventing responsibility for your own academic performance.

Examples of weak excuses include poor time management, normal exam stress, minor illnesses, disagreements with your teacher (“my math teacher hates me”), you get the idea. Don’t appear unprofessional or apologize for situations which you could have easily fixed.

If Your Grades Aren’t Actually Poor

There’s no reason for you to explain why you have one A- (or even multiple A minuses) or a B+ on your transcript. It’s important that you know exactly what constitutes poor grades in high school. If you have several C’s, or even a D, that is more striking to admissions officers’ eyes than an A-. Detailing all of the factors behind an A- or B shows a lack of perspective!

If Your Poor Grades Were Temporary (But Not Due to Extenuating Circumstances)

And they have since improved, great! Let your improved academic performance speak for itself. There’s no need to highlight a poor performing year.

If You Maintained a Less Than Ideal GPA Throughout High School (Without Extenuating Circumstances)

But, not all hope is lost! Focus your attention on polishing the other parts of your application. Admissions officers view your application holistically. Poor grades in high school may be partially made up for through high standardized test scores, a strong personal statement, and impressive demonstrations of leadership through participation of unique activities. Don’t spend your entire college application process worrying about how to explain your grades. Shine in the other parts of your application!

Where to Explain

So, where exactly do you bring up poor grades in high school on your application if you decide to explain them? There are three main areas in the application where it can be appropriate to explain a situation that contributed to your lower grades: the Additional Information section of the Common App, the letters of recommendation, and certain supplemental essays. The Additional Information section is best for a short, direct explanation of your situation. You don’t have to get into every tiny detail. Your description should be concise and to the point. Provide just enough context so that they get an idea of why you might have a C-, but there’s no need to tell them what you had for breakfast that week or every single emotion that went through your mind during that finals season.

A teacher or counselor can then support the information you’ve provided in their own words through their letter of recommendation. Having a teacher confirm that you are a strong candidate despite what your grades reflect on paper can go a long way. Admissions officers want to know what you’re like in the classroom. Similarly, your counselor’s recommendation is crucial in helping colleges understand how you might fit in. Your counselor can speak to your abilities and elaborate on how much you’ve improved. If you’re hoping that they do so, you should discuss this with them beforehand, as it might not immediately occur to them to mention your academic comeback in their letter.

Finally, an increasing number of schools have added an optional essay prompt for this purpose exactly. Some examples are below:

University of Texas at Austin:

Do you believe your academic record (transcript information and test scores) provide an accurate representation of you as a student? Why or why not?

Elon University:

Is there anything about your application, background, or personal experience that you have not shared in your application or essay that would be helpful for the Admissions Committee to know?

Whichever method you choose, remember to include in your explanation how you’ve grown from the situation and the steps you’re taking towards improvement. Admissions officers appreciate honesty and context when used with discretion. Remember, you don’t want this explanation to become the only thing they remember about you. Provide the necessary background and then focus on the rest of your application.

Because college admissions are holistic, a drop in your GPA does not have to be the end of your college aspirations, because it’s one factor of many (albeit the most important one) that are considered. Avoid poor grades in high school as much as you can, but if things are out of your command, stay wary of the situation and explain only if it seems right. And if you discuss your grades in a clear and objective way, you can minimize the negative impact that they might have on your application.

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