Hopefully you are beginning the college process on the best possible footing. By this we mean you have achieved excellent grades in difficult classes, received high scores on not only your primary standardized test but any subject tests as well, and have a litany of highly-developed interests and extracurriculars. But we understand, this isn’t always the case.
Maybe it took you longer to get your footing academically. Maybe you didn’t devote as much time as you needed to testing and tutoring. Or maybe you were too busy honing your skills in an extracurricular activity. Whatever the reason, you are now in a position where your grades and scores do not align with the caliber of school you were hoping to apply to.
There’s no magic wand you can wave that will reverse this and turn B’s into A’s or increase your test scores. But there are some things you can do to alleviate low grades and test scores and place emphasis on other parts of your application.
First, focus on your extracurriculars. Make it clear to the admissions committee that even if you weren’t able to 100% achieve your academic goals, you were spending your time pursuing your passions outside of the classroom. If you scored low on your ACTs but are an accomplished pianist or published writer, make this the focal point of your application. Highlighting extracurricular achievement can be a valuable way to shift focus away from lower than expected grades and scores. You want the admissions committee to know what you were doing with your time. There’s no need to sound defensive or like you’re making up an excuse. Just be honest and make your successes outside of class apparent to anyone reading your application.
Second, your essay must be excellent. This may seem obvious. Of course you want to write the best possible essay regardless of your grades and scores, but if they’re low it becomes even more imperative. If you’re on the cusp of admission, especially if you’re credentials are on the low end, your essay becomes vital to your chances. Spend time polishing each word of the common app and supplemental school essays to make sure that they’re carefully crafted narratives. Be sure to work in whatever you’ve achieved outside the classroom and highlight your skill as a writer. (For help, read this, this, and this.)
Finally, if your grades are strong but scores are low, look into some test optional schools. Many excellent small colleges have increasingly moved away from test scores as a benchmark and if you’re worried that low SAT scores are holding you back, definitely review this list.
There’s no sugar coating it. Not having the strongest grades and scores can be a huge blow to your admission chances at top tier schools. But if you highlight your work outside the classroom and showcase your other skills it can definitely improve your chances. And for those of you who are just beginning the college process, let this be a reminder for you to do everything to put yourself in a place to succeed.