High SAT/ACT Score, Low GPA: A Dilemma
If you scored really high on the SAT/ACT but have a low GPA, college admissions will assume you have great potential (as indicated by your test scores) but low motivation (as demonstrated by your poor GPA).
As your application paperwork is being looked at by admissions, they see you as an intelligent student who has lazy tendencies. Of course, you do not want them to think that; you want to give them a reason to take a chance with you. You need to find ways to justify your poor GPA and still prove that you will work hard enough to succeed in college.
We will consider a few reasons related to your low GPA and examine the kind of questions that the admissions committee would likely ask you. Each scenario contains specific suggestions, but it would be helpful for you to read all of them since your circumstances might be unique and combine several of the reasons.
Why Is Your GPA Low?
Once you submit an application and the admissions committee sees that your GPA is relatively low, they are definitely going to want to know the reasons. If you cannot properly justify it, you probably have no chance of getting into your top college choice.
Scenarios that Most Commonly Cause Low GPAs
If these particular cases do not apply to you, do not worry; we will have more to say about situations that are more relevant to your case.
Scenario 1: Circumstances Beyond Your Control
Sometimes things happen in life that you have no control over. This could include a family crisis or a medical condition. If either of these offer justification for your low GPA, by all means mention it in the "extra information" box. It would also be appropriate to include this when writing your personal statement.
More specifically, imagine that you and your younger siblings are being raised in a single parent household when suddenly that parent loses their job, forcing you to hold one yourself. This will obviously affect your ability to get your homework done and study for tests. As this would explain your low GPA score, you would definitely want to inform the admissions committee about this as you are telling your story. The same situation applies if you suffered from a medical condition that kept you hospitalized for an extended period of time.
The bottom line is this: if there were serious circumstances that led to poor grades, you should thoroughly explain this on your college application. The admissions committee is not going to ignore your low GPA, so you will need to explain that in your case it could not be prevented.
It would be a good move to point out the classes you did well in, but you should also explain the circumstances that caused your overall GPA to be lower than it otherwise might have been.
Scenario 2: You Are Super Busy with Extracurricular Activities
If you devote a lot of time to high school extracurricular activities - let us imagine you won a state speech contest or play a mean trombone - at the expense of your class grades, it certainly will not be the best excuse, but at least it could improve the odds of you getting in.
The GPA score is not the only thing that college admissions look at. They look at the person as a whole and they are definitely seeking out exceptionally gifted students in specific areas. If you pair up some really great extracurricular achievements in addition to a high ACT/SAT score, the admissions committee might give you the benefit of the doubt if your GPA is low.
Also Consider the Classes You're Taking
If you are taking advanced placement courses and are struggling, it is still far better than doing poorly in comparatively easy classes. You should consider the pattern of your grades and determine why you got low grades in particular classes. After all, you can be sure that the admissions committee will be doing just that. If you can provide an explanation for your patterns, it will assist them as they are deciding whether to let you in.
Scenario 3: Enrolled in AP Classes, Got a Low GPA
Did you load up your schedule with a bunch of challenging classes and struggle as a result? When writing your admissions essay, you could discuss the lessons learned as a result of overloading on classes and how you will make the right adjustments when you get into college.
Since these classes were difficult, you could benefit by explaining what you learned and how you have become intellectually stronger as a result. For instance, even if you did poorly in AP Biology, you may have found the topic fascinating and wanted to know more about it so you volunteered at a hospital. This kind of situation demonstrates to colleges that even if your GPA was not as high as you had wanted, you take it seriously and possess great potential.
Scenario 4: Enrolled in Easy Classes, Got a Low GPA
Did you take easy classes that you found boring, so you put in zero effort? The admissions committee might not buy the argument, but if you took regular classes and your GPA was poor, you could try to explain that the classes did not stimulate your interest and that as a result, you could not motivate yourself to get the easy assignments done, but that you pursued your intellectual interests in your spare time.
If you attend a high school that does not give you the option of taking honors or AP classes, your justification might be stronger.
Along the same lines, if you had a poor GPA overall but happened to do very well in the classes that are directly related to your future pursuits, the committee could be swayed. For example, if you dream about working in finance and did extremely well in calculus and businesses classes, you might be forgiven for getting Cs in History and English Lit.
What is Your Grade Trend?
While your GPA obviously matters, what is also important is how you finished. Whether you struggled during your first couple of years of high school and then gradually improved over the next couple of years, or you started well and then your grades began to sink, you will need to provide an explanation.
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Scenario 5: You Began With Low Grades but Things Got Better
If you are currently a sophomore or junior with a low GPA, now is the time to start improving your grades. You might not be able to make up for your mediocre start, but finishing up strong can make a positive impression on the admissions committee. It will demonstrate that you are able to make adjustments and fix your issues over the course of your high school career.
Showing that you can improve will really serve you well in college as college itself will also be an adjustment. You can really strengthen your case if your improved GPA occurred while taking challenging AP classes. It ultimately shows that you are somebody who is capable of learning and succeeding in college.
If this scenario applies to you, you would definitely want to explain why you fared so poorly at first as well as discuss what circumstances caused your grades to get better. This along with a great ACT/SAT score can go a long way towards convincing the admissions committee that you are ready for the rigors of college.
Scenario 6: You Started High School Strong, But Finished Weak
Did you do well during your first couple of high school years but your grades have since plummeted? You will need to explain the reasons. Did you load up on too many challenging classes once you reached your junior year? Did you play sports and join a lot of clubs? Did you or somebody in your family fall ill?
You will also need to demonstrate that you have other academic or intellectual interests, as will be discussed further.
Keep in mind that starting off well and then experiencing sinking grades will be regarded as a red flag by the admissions committee. In their minds, it could indicate that you are prone to burn out, which is troubling since college exactly is not going to be a walk in the park. However, all hope is not lost. But you will really need to make a huge impression your senior year. If possible, take a few honors or AP classes and work as hard as you can to get good grades.
If the admissions committee sees that you have taken more difficult classes and are doing well, it will give them reassurances that you can handle the load once you get into their college.
Another strategy would be to take SAT Subject Tests. While most colleges prefer the broader SAT test, many colleges will also consider the more focused version. If you manage a high school on a SAT Subject Test, you can convince admissions committee that you have what it takes to thrive in certain subjects.
If you have not considered the option of taking SAT Subjects Tests, you should, especially if the admissions committee considers you on the bubble. If you are really strong at certain subjects and do well on the test, the fact that you have a less-than-stellar GPA might not matter as much.
Other Ways to Prove You Are Academically Prepared
If you have a poor GPA and cannot find any justification for it, you will need to convince admissions committees that you are nonetheless ready to handle college. While the ACT/SAT score is a good start, here are some other ways in which you can demonstrate your academic abilities…
Scenario 7: You Struggle at One Subject
Are there certain subjects that you simply cannot figure out? Do the Ds in your science classes drag down a GPA that otherwise includes As and Bs in all other classes? If this applies to you, place the focus on what you are good at.
For instance, if you did really well in your speech and creative writing classes, focus on how you are a highly imaginative person who loves giving presentations and writing stories. This will show that while you might not be strong at sciences, you thrive intellectually in the subjects that are most linked to your future objectives. This will make a very good impression on the committee.
If you are a member of a student club or have taken part in speech contests, this will also persuade the committee to forget about that D in biology. The fact that you are willing to dedicate yourself to your interests outside of the classroom could be highly persuasive when it comes time to decide whether to admit you or not.
Scenario 8: You Did Well on the Course Exams
Did you get Cs in classes but do really well on the final exams? It could make a difference since it indicates that you understand the material.
Point out that you did well on the exams and discuss how these classes will help you reach your future goals. In your personal statement you could try to justify why you had fared poorly prior to doing well on the final exams, but you should spend more time discussing how you want to pursue them in college.
Keep in mind that you need to demonstrate that you have what it takes to succeed in college, and doing well on AP tests will serve as evidence of this!
Scenario 9: You Took Classes Outside of High School
If you took a class at a community college or attended an academic camp during the summer, these are things you will want to highlight in your application. While it will not persuade the admissions committee to ignore your poor GPA, it will show that you are sincere about enriching yourself academically.
Ask the community college instructor or camp counselor to write you a letter of recommendation. It could really help your case.
Scenario 10: You Have Academic Interests Outside of the Classroom
You might have a poor GPA, but are you an avid reader of classical literature? Do you study computer programming code on your own?
If you have taken the initiative to pursue academic interests on your own free time - especially rigorous ones - the admissions committee is likely to take this into consideration. In essence, if these are things that do not show up on your academic transcript but can help you demonstrate your abilities, you definitely need to include it in your application!
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