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9 College Admission Tips for Students With Bad Grades

Even if you have a low high school GPA, you can still make your college dreams a reality. And these study and application tips can help you get there!

By now you’ve heard that good grades are a huge part of getting into college. But what do you do when you’re staring down your college applications and you have a mediocre—or straight-up bad—GPA? Luckily, all hope is not lost. You can still find a college that fits you—a good college, even. But you'll have to rethink where to go and how to get there. Here’s your first step: Do something to boost your grades, starting now.

Why it’s not too late to boost your grades

“It’s never too late to improve, because one of the things colleges want to see is an upward trend and an explanation of why it wasn’t going so well,” says John Boshoven, counselor for continuing education at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. What if your school performance tanked for a while for a specific reason? Maybe you came down with the flu, your parents got divorced, or it turned out that you couldn’t handle a super-hard class. College admission counselors understand that life happens. (It may also be worth discussing that hardship in your college application essay or asking if one of your recommendation writers can mention how you bounced back.)

No matter what the case is—or how bad your grades are—you need to figure out what you learned from your experience and how you’ll do better from now on. “You can’t make excuses if you haven’t done some self-reflection,” says Kiersten Murphy, an independent college counselor in Washington State. It’s true that a C average or lower will limit your college choices, Murphy says, but you still have options.

Related: Your Grades Don't Define You, But They Do Matter 

9 tips for students with bad high school grades

So what else can you do when your grades aren’t so hot? There are certainly a lot of ways to improve your grades as well as ways to improve your college applications in general. Here are some ideas.

1. Take classes you like

Boshoven points out that you’ll probably get better grades in classes that you actually enjoy. Ask your school counselor to help you pick classes that make you happy and fulfill your requirements for high school graduation and college applications.

2. Stick with teachers you like 

Some teachers in your high school are probably a better match for you than others. And if the teacher is a good match for how you learn, you’ll probably earn a better grade in their class. “I ask juniors all the time, ‘Who are you thinking of asking to write your college recommendation letter?’” Boshoven says. “Can you take that teacher again?”

3. Ask for help—and mean it

If you’ve decided now to work on raising your high school grades, you’ll have to build new habits. Stop by after school and tell your teacher, “I want to do better in your class. Can you help me?” Then show that you mean it. Follow your teacher’s advice. Volunteer to answer a math problem at the board. Ask your parents to hide your phone so you can study for an hour after dinner every night. Making small changes over time can help you more than you realize.

Related: 6 Smart Tips for Dealing With a Bad Grade 

4. Take a class online or during the summer

If you’re missing graduation requirements or failed a class and can’t retake it, you might have to take a class outside of the regular school year. Your high school counselor can help you find ways to catch up with classes during breaks or summer vacation, either in person or online.

5. Find colleges that look at the whole person

Many colleges and universities partake in “holistic” admission decisions, meaning they look not just at your academics but your extracurriculars, intended major, and other pieces of the application puzzle to get a fuller picture of who you really are. They might even give you an opportunity to write an essay where you can explain how you’ve committed to doing better in school, or you could explain as much during an interview with an admission counselor. This might sound intimidating, but it’s a way for the admission office to learn more about who you are as a person beyond your grades and why you’d be a good fit for their school.

6. Use the “additional information” section

Most college applications have a place where you can tell admission counselors anything else they need to know about you. If you didn’t write your essay about the reason for your poor grades, explain it here. Don’t use this section to further comment on other things already outlined in your application. Really make use of the section to let the college know why you’d still be a great fit despite the areas of your application in which you may be lacking.

Related: What Is a Common Application Supplement?

7. Consider starting at a community or other two-year college

As long as you’ve finished high school, community colleges will take you as you are. Murphy says a year of good grades here will make your high school performance matter a lot less. “Work hard, get A’s, then transfer to an awesome school,” she advises. If community college isn’t for you, another two-year school (like a two-year private college) might be your perfect launching pad. Like at community college, you’ll have a chance to prove yourself. But you could also have other perks, like leaving home and living in a residence hall, which can help you adjust to college life and the real world.

8. Consider a postgraduate year

Some private boarding schools offer students a “postgraduate year” (or “13th grade”) as a way to grow academically and socially before starting college. Murphy says a year in a nurturing environment and extra exposure to a high school curriculum can open many college doors. “You’ll be coming in more prepared,” she says. “There are instances in which it can make a real difference.” Keep in mind these schools often charge pretty hefty tuition fees—similar to four-year colleges—but many also offer scholarships.

9. Take a gap year

Maybe you’re burned out and need a break from school. Spending a gap year working, volunteering, or traveling could give you more clarity on what you hope to get out of college—which isn’t a bad thing for your applications either.

Related: List: Great Gap Year Programs

If you’re determined to go to college, nothing can stop you, including bad grades. The important thing is to commit to working hard and doing your best so you’ll end up at the best school for you. Find ways to improve your schools or pivot your applications to boost the other sections. Best of luck!

Find more advice for bringing up your grades and improving your study skills in our Majors and Academics section.

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