How To Explain Special Circumstances for Poor Academic Performance in High School

This is a great question that many students and parents have. Every life and path is completely different, and everyone has a different story to tell. A lot can happen in 1 month, much less 4 years, and we completely understand that sometimes life happens in an unexpected way and as such, affects your ability to perform to the best of your ability in school. Not only do we understand this, but colleges understand this as well. As with every other part of your application, it’s important to be mindful of how you present the facts and that you do so in such a way that explains rather than excuses. It’s a fine line to tow, and here’s what we suggest.

If something happened throughout your high school career that you think is exceptional and requires an explanation of sorts, this is where the Additional Information section of the Common Application works to your advantage. That is what it’s there for. It’s there to help you explain a part of your story that the rest of the application didn’t and couldn’t cover. It’s also there to shed some light on a part of your personality or a set of interests that you haven’t been able to mention elsewhere. In the case that you feel compelled to share an event, set of circumstances, or unique story that you think might help an admissions reader understand why you received a D in History or had a 3.1 average coming out of your first semester sophomore year (compared to every other semester that you came out of with a 4.0), then consider the Additional Information section.

What we advise against is tackling what is likely a sensitive and personal subject in your Common App personal statement. The reason that we advise against it is because we advise students to write their essays and tell stories about lessons they’ve learned based on experiences they’ve had vs. experiences that have been imposed on them. Your personal statement is not a sob story. It’s a space to share a lesson and tell a story, not bring your admissions reader down or make them cry. We like to inspire laughter with our Common App stories, not sadness.

Additionally, don’t casually mention your extenuating circumstances in any part of your application like your supplements, for example. Don’t write it in a small area in the Transcript upload section, and don’t have your teacher recommendation casually mention it in their recommendation. Use the Additional Information section to your advantage—gain, this is exactly why it’s there. Your entire application is going to be considered together, so don’t fear that a college won’t review one part of it. You have the option of having your guidance counselor include a note and explanation of your circumstances in their recommendation letter. In the event that you do feel comfortable writing about it yourself, we always recommend going in that direction. Colleges are looking for clear, confident communicators. Your ability to speak to and advocate on your own behalf on the matter will inevitably speak volumes.

Of course, every situation is different and there’s no such thing as universal advice here. Give us a call or send us a note if you want to talk this one through. We completely understand that it can be hard to navigate.