How To Get Into College If You Have Bad Grades in High School

Application Strategies
August 4, 2021
Bad grades in high school can make college applications more challenging, but they can be overcome with an alternative application strategy.

You have a lot of control over many aspects of the college application process, but one thing you don't have is a time machine. There's no way to go back and improve bad grades from your sophomore and junior years. If your high school grades are lacking and you're stuck with a mediocre GPA, getting into the four-year college of your dreams could be a challenge. But that doesn't mean that pursuing your collegiate goals is out of the question! It just means you'll have to approach college applications with an alternative strategy. Let's look at how to get into college with bad grades in high school.

First the Bad News

We're not going to sugar-coat it: grades are an important part of how a college evaluates potential students. It's certainly true that grades aren't everything -- more on that in a moment -- but especially at Ivy Leagues and other prestigious schools, applicants who don't meet a certain minimum of high school academic success simply won't make the cut. 

The most competitive schools use a score called Academic Index that assigns numbers to your SAT scores and your GPA (or rank in your class). Originally designed to make sure student athletes at the Ivy Leagues were on par with other students (and thus not receiving preferential treatment for their athletic prowess), they've since evolved into a sort of screening method that weeds out applicants with lower scores. The AI score is not used by every college, and they don't all use them the same way, but its use is common among the top-ranked U.S. schools.

What that means for you is that if your high school grades are poor, admissions counselors at a top 20 university will probably never even see your application. So it doesn't matter how good your essays are or how many glowing letters of recommendation you receive. It's a hard truth, but you might have to set your sights a little lower. At first.

The Community College Route

If you're starting to think about college applications early enough, you might still have a year or two to work on your grades, ace some exams, and improve your GPA. But if it's already the summer before your senior year, you might not be able to do much to change your grades. And you can't exactly go back and retake your last two years of high school. So how can you improve your grades? By starting your college experience at a two-year community college.

Community colleges are obviously not as prestigious as Caltech or Harvard, but many of them offer great educational opportunities, especially when it comes to the core classes you'll probably need for your eventual four-year degree. Fortunately, community colleges cater to students who might not have the background to get into a four-year college right out of high school. Or, to put it plainly, they'll accept you even though your grades aren't great.

That means you can spend two years earning good grades at a community college, and use those grades to become a stronger candidate when it comes to transferring to another school. Plus, community colleges offer excellent educational value, so your college journey will come with a lower price tag.

Focus On Your Narrative Journey

What if your grades aren't terrible, they're just mediocre? Your Academic Index might be high enough to at least get noticed by your first choice school. But you might be worried that your grades aren't good enough to get the acceptance letter you've always dreamed of. Now it's time for the good news -- grades are important, but they only represent 20 to 30 percent of your application. Depending on the school, your essay might be worth just as much.

This is where you can set yourself apart. Don't ignore your bad grades. Address them head on, at least in your cover letter. But a better strategy is to create a compelling narrative around your grades and use it in your essay. Maybe life at home is turbulent and hectic, impacting your ability to study and do homework. Maybe you had to devote a lot of time to caring for a sick family member. Some students struggle because financial problems make it hard for them to access the technology needed to succeed in school these days. Other students struggle with learning disorders or simply haven't figured out the right strategies for studying and memorizing material yet. 

Whatever the reason, use your essay to discuss the challenges you've faced, how you've worked to overcome them, and how you plan to succeed going forward despite the problems that caused you to have bad grades. 

Keep in mind, this isn't about making excuses. Be realistic about the challenges you've faced. They might even be personal challenges -- you could talk about poor choices you've made and what has happened to make you change course and prepare you for a more disciplined college life. Honesty and self-reflection can make you seem like a good addition to a college's student community.

While letters of recommendation make up a smaller percentage of your application, they can also be used to reinforce this strategy. If there's a teacher or mentor who knows and understands the challenges you've dealt with, a strong letter from them that addresses your bad grades and talks about your strength of character will definitely make admissions officers take a second look at your application.

Bet On the Tests

If your grades are middling and it's too late to bring them up, you have one other way to boost your Academic Index -- get a great score on the SAT or ACT. This strategy is simple, just focus on studying for the test, plan to take it more than once, and go all-out to get the highest score you're capable of. It just might nudge your Academic Index over the threshold.

It Never Hurts to Ask

Many schools -- even elite schools -- have special programs for students with non-traditional academic backgrounds. This could include remedial assistance and tutoring for your first few semesters, a special dorm, or alternate application processes, especially for students who've faced financial or family struggles in high school, or who come from underrepresented groups.

You can research these programs on the college's website, but the best way to learn more is to call the admissions office and ask. Tell them you're a potential applicant with bad grades in high school, and ask if they have any programs for students who have struggled academically in the past. 

Even the best students can make poor decisions or be faced with difficult circumstances in high school. One result of that can be bad grades that might make getting into college seem like an impossibility. But even with bad grades, it's possible to get into a good four-year college -- maybe even your dream school -- with hard work and the right application strategy. The WeAdmit team is ready to help you develop your own personalized college application strategy, whatever challenges you might need to overcome. Our free counseling sessions will answer all your questions about the college admissions process and guide you toward your perfect college, even if you don't have perfect grades.



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