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How to Strengthen Your College Application

Sometimes, even despite best efforts, grades don’t turn out exactly how we’d like them to. When applying to college, this can feel a bit stressful. Here’s how to handle average grades in your college application.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Student Tips
How to Strengthen Your College Application

Understanding how college applications are evaluated can make it easier to figure out how to navigate this issue. According to Ivywise, “Admissions officers look at “hard factors” (GPA, grades, and test scores) and “soft factors” (essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and demonstrated interest) to gain a full picture of applicants.” However, most colleges are also interested in who a student is as a whole person, and how they will round out an incoming freshman class. If your grades aren’t quite where you would like them to be, you can focus on building up other areas of strength to appeal to admissions officers.

1. Use essays or short response questions wisely

Essay and short answer responses are a great way to demonstrate your knowledge, as well as your writing skills. Additionally there are sometimes extenuating circumstances that lead to less than perfect grades. For example, you may have missed time in school due to illness, or had to work to help care for your family. As Dave Bergman, Ed.D., points out, “Even if the reason is unspectacular but still gives insight into you as a human being — a bout of depression or a philosophical crisis — it’s worth highlighting here.” Take the time to craft a carefully thought-out essay, then have it reviewed and edited by someone you trust. Make sure you’re thinking about the answers to the questions, and giving the right amount of detail to each question.

2. Solicit recommendations

While two recommendations are generally what’s expected for a college application, if your grades aren’t as high as you would like, you might want to ask for more recommendations to plump up your admissions package. Having someone who knows you well who can speak on your behalf can be very helpful to the admissions committee. Try to utilize people who can speak to other aspects of your character apart from education to demonstrate different parts of who you are, and what you can bring to the table.

3. Accentuate your strengths through AP Tests and SAT Subject Tests.

Focusing on studying for your AP or SAT tests can help demonstrate your education and skills. Take the time to work on getting your test scores up by taking courses, studying hard, and taking practice tests. Your test scores can show your ability to learn and reflect upon your knowledge.

4. Craft a narrative

Get ready to talk about why your grades suffered in high school. Be willing to share if asked, and think about a narrative that explains what happened, as well as responds to what you plan to do to correct this in college. Susan

Osborn, Ph.D., who has spent 30 years in higher education, much of which in admissions, recommends utilizing “the area in the Common Application that offers you space to add information on “[a]nything else you want us to know.” That’s where you want to provide the context for poor grade(s) if the context is not going to be provided by a counselor.” This gives you a chance to explain a poor grade without getting too in-depth or derailing other aspects of your application.

6. Target schools that allow for imperfect transcripts.

There are a lot of amazing schools out there. If your dream school is out of reach due to grades, that’s ok. It might be time to adjust your expectations, and start looking into other possibilities. Focus on schools that allow for imperfect transcripts. As mentioned earlier, many schools are looking for an individual who can help round out their incoming classes, as opposed to a straight-A student. Therefore, take your time to review different schools and their admissions requirements. There’s definitely an option out there for you. Even if may not be exactly what you expected initially, you might find that you have the time of your life and could prove to be even better than if you had gone to your first choice.

7. Don’t let things snowball

If your grades aren’t great, don’t give up. It’s easy to get discouraged, and let everything start snowballing. Once that happens, it’s difficult to dig yourself out from under that avalanche. Instead, focus on what you can control. Continue studying, focus on your extracurriculars (but not to the detriment of your studies), and develop other ways to bolster your application materials. Keep reminding yourself that it’s going to be ok. Continue showing interest in the schools you’re hoping to attend, keep in touch with admissions counselors, and let them know you’re a candidate that should be considered.

Remember, average grades happen -- in fact, they are a statistical inevitability. While it can be upsetting, it doesn’t have to be something that prevents you from attending university. Instead, remember to focus on the things you can control, and make a plan to continue finishing your high school education to the best of your ability. With hard work, you can still find a place at the right school for you!

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Chelsea Castonguay


Chelsea is a Student Affairs expatriate, who now works as a freelance writer and editor. She homesteads in a small town in rural Maine, USA. She enjoys hiking, fishing, cooking, reading, all things Laura Ingalls Wilder, spending time with her family, and chasing her black lab puppy, Cash.

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