We already know your high school GPA is an important factor for college admissions. With hundreds and thousands of students applying each fall, GPA serves as the gateway to help colleges streamline the selection process. Applicants typically need to first meet a certain GPA threshold before having their application (essays, activities, letters of recommendation, and any other supplemental materials) read in the next step. However, you may not earn grades as high as you or your prospective colleges might like. So, are there strategies you can take to still get you into college?
The answer is YES! It is still possible to get into your dream or target college with lower than the expected GPA level. Note that a low or high GPA is relative in college admissions, depending on the type of colleges you are applying to. An unweighted 3.8 GPA on a 4.0 scale would be considered low if the goal is Ivy level colleges and universities. An unweighted 3.6 would be considered low if you are aiming for competitive majors at your flagship state universities. So, the context for our discussion here is not about whether you earned a specific GPA, but whether your GPA is lower than the expected level at your dream or target school. Follow the six tips we offer below, and good luck!
Improve your GPA, and don’t apply early
Unless you are already well into the first semester of your senior year, you always have opportunities to improve your GPA for college admission. If you are freshman or sophomore, work on the classes at your school. If you are already a junior, there is one additional step you could explore. Schools nowadays usually allow students to take online classes outside of their district, and some schools would include grades earned in those online classes into the GPA calculation. Since it is almost easier to get A’s in those online classes than an in-person class at your school, contact the counselor at your school to see if you have this option. Policies can vary significantly between districts. Some districts or private schools have a list of approved external online schools where the grades earned will be included in GPA calculation.
If you have already finished your junior year with a lower-than-expected GPA, don’t apply early. Work hard and get stellar grades in the first semester of your senior year, and apply Regular Decision. Although you will still most likely submit your application before your first semester grades are released, you will have the opportunity to send an update to colleges with a mid-year report. So, your cumulative GPA will improve.
Get a high test score
Before COVID-19, getting a high test score was definitely the fastest way to improve your chance of admission if you had a lower-than-expected GPA. Even with most colleges becoming test-optional and a few test-blind since the pandemic began, having a high test score will still give you a significant advantage. Although a high test score won’t completely cancel out a low GPA, it can help convince admissions officers that you will have the academic ability to succeed in college.
Offer an explanation for the low GPA
There are many reasons a student’s grades can drop, including injury, physical or mental illness, family issues, a switch in teachers during the year, or a lack of maturity. The coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted the traditional in-person learning experience for many students during 2020 and 2021, was another reason for GPA slip.
Colleges recognize that GPA isn't always an indicator of the student’s capability. So, provide an honest explanation about your lower-than-expected grades. No matter which college application form you are filling out, Common App, Coalition App, UC App, or the App used by your state universities, there is always a place for you to provide an explanation. However, keep in mind that providing an honest explanation is different from venting or complaining about your teacher or school.
Get strong letters of recommendation
Many colleges and universities require 1-3 letters of recommendation. A good word from your high school counselor or teacher who knows you well academically and/or personally can go a long way in college admissions. These letters become especially important when your grades are subpar. You should always cultivate close relationships with your counselor and teachers as early as you can. When asking for a letter of recommendation, ask politely, give them ample time in advance of the deadline, and thank them profusely. This is another area where you can have them touch upon challenges you have come across that might have led to a slip in GPA.
Write stellar essays
Essays become the most important factor once you pass the first step of GPA screening in the selection process. If you just meet the minimum academic threshold, you can use strong essays to offset your weak GPA. Use your essays, including the main and the supplemental ones, to show your character and growth, to demonstrate that you have done your college research extensively, and to convince the specific college that you will be a great fit and a valuable member to their student body.
Start at a community college
Community colleges are a great place to start your college career if you are not academically ready, or if your GPA is holding you back from getting into your competitive dream school. After two years of excelling at the community college, you will be able to demonstrate to college admissions that you are ready for rigorous college-level coursework. Community college transfer is a particularly great pathway if you want to attend the flagship public university in your state. Many state universities have agreements with local community colleges, where an admission would be guaranteed if a student completes prerequisites with satisfactory grades. For example, for a given major at a given UC campus, the transfer acceptance rate can be much higher than the freshman acceptance rate.