Can One Semester of Low Grades Ruin My Chances of Admission to College?

It happens. A blip on the transcript. A semester or year of low grades. The reasons are endless: divorce, sickness, mental illness, homelessness, death of a parent or sibling, an abusive relationship, caretaking responsibilities, addiction, etc. And then the student pulls through, finds her strength and resilience and her grades go back up. But, her GPA has suffered. How will college admissions officers view this student? Will she have the same college choices she would have if her grades hadn’t suffered?

The Importance of Trends on a Transcript in the Admissions Process:

College admissions officers do not take your GPA at face value. Your grades are viewed in context with several other factors such as the academic rigor on your transcript, the availability of honors, AP and IB courses at your school, your socioeconomic status and your standardized test scores. Admissions officers also look for trends on your transcript. Some transcripts indicate consistency in grades while others show a steady improvement from freshman through senior years. Transcripts that have inconsistent grades or a semester or year of low grades can only be accurately interpreted with more information. Admissions officers will look for an explanation in your teachers’ letters of recommendation, your counselor’s letter of recommendation, your college essay or the “additional information” section of the application.

What You Can Do:

College admissions officers are reading your application and trying to find reasons to admit you to their colleges. They do not want to send you a rejection letter. Therefore, it makes sense to provide them with the information they need to accurately interpret your transcript and understand why your grades suffered. They need this information to determine that you are a good academic fit for their campus and that, if admitted, you will be an academic success.

The additional information section of the application is the best place to explain to admissions officers why you have an academic discrepancy on your transcript. Write a paragraph (or more) explaining what happened and how you handled the challenge. Your explanation should not focus on placing blame. Instead, it should emphasize what has changed in the situation or how you have grown such that you are prepared to take on the academic challenges of college.

Alternatively, you may choose to discuss your concerns with your school counselor and ask him or her to use part of the counselor letter of recommendation to explain the discrepancy on your transcript. While this may work in some situations and with some counselors, you lose control over the message sent to admissions officers. Therefore, I typically recommend that you offer your own explanation.

Some students want to write about the situation in their college essay. The adversity was such a powerful and influential part of their life that they can’t imagine writing about any other topic. While, for some students this may be appropriate, I prefer students use their college essay space as an opportunity to share their positive attributes and characteristics. There are many facets of a student’s life and identity that are relevant to a college’s admissions decision. Use your essay to elaborate on other parts of your story and personality and explain your grades in the “additional information” section.

Will My Explanation of Low Grades Ultimately Help Me Get Accepted?

You should not let one semester or even a year of lower grades hold you back from applying to a college that is a good fit for you. For MOST colleges, it is likely that a period of low grades will not prevent your admission if an explanation is provided and the overall trend in your grades and the level of rigor shown on your transcript matches the colleges’ criteria.

You are an intelligent and motivated student who faced a challenge that was likely not your fault and out of your control. The lessons, skills and maturity you gained from the experience have likely made you a better person. You will be bringing these gifts to college and sharing them with your campus community. You deserve the opportunity to apply so please don’t deny yourself the chance of admission because your GPA is lower than it otherwise would have been. If you are a good fit for a college and they value life experiences, they may well invite you to join the freshman class.

Good luck!

Michelle McAnaney is the founder of The College Spy, a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Prior to founding The College Spy, Michelle was a guidance counselor and educator for more than 15 years, including serving as the Director of Guidance at two high schools, an adjunct college professor and a GED tutor. Michelle holds a master’s degree in school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in human development. She recently completed UC Irvine’s certificate program in educational consulting and is a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) Certified Practitioner and a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. Michelle visits over 40 colleges each year so that she has first-hand knowledge of the colleges and universities her clients will be considering. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.