How to Apply to College if You Don't Have All A's

Plenty of fine colleges give extra credit for hard work and drive.

There are schools that value students who work hard just as much as students who deliver high grades.

There are schools that value students who work hard just as much as students who deliver high grades.

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Updated 9/13/13

Three years ago, as she entered senior year, Fiona Brown of Stockbridge, Mass., was "nervous, but not too nervous" about applying for college. She had taken mostly honors and a couple of AP classes and excelled in the humanities and social sciences. But she had struggled some in math and science, posting a cumulative 3.2 GPA and a math SAT score of 570, along with a 720 in verbal and a 650 in writing.

"I definitely wasn't a slacking student," says Brown. On the other hand, she says, she wasn't "the A-plus student," either.

But she'd served as junior class vice president, was involved in music and theater and community service through her church and school organizations, and had completed an independent study project on the psychology of religion, all of which she trusted would complement her not-too-shabby grades. Indeed, Brown impressed the admissions staff at the College of Wooster in Ohio, where she recently finished sophomore year with a 3.8 overall, including an A in statistics.

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For the many high school students who haven't earned straight A's, the message from counselors and admissions officials is this: Don't despair! As top-of-the-pack classmates collect rejection letters from highly selective schools, it might be easy for those with mostly B's to think that their only option is a noncompetitive college – or none at all.

But given that the average acceptance rate at four-year colleges and universities is about 64 percent, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, mid-range students will find no shortage of good options that welcome solid students who've demonstrated their motivation to learn. U.S. News ranks more than 300 of them.

[See the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings.]

"I think really, to be quite honest, most colleges and universities are delighted to work with that student who has a good work ethic and has taken difficult classes and has earned that B average," says W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., where the average high school GPA of the most recent incoming class was 3.17. "Many of those students don't remain B students when they choose the right college."

The goal is "not just to be admitted, but to be admitted someplace where you can successfully do the work," says Martha O'Connell, executive director of Colleges That Change Lives, a nonprofit group that educates students and counselors about focusing on fit rather than prestige.

For many students, the best fit might be a small college where they can develop a close relationship with a faculty mentor; for others, it might mean an emphasis on internships or co-op education.

Applicants who have struggled with the SAT or ACT might consider one of the hundreds of colleges – including Bowdoin College in Maine, Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania and Wake Forest University in North Carolina – that are test-optional or use scores only for advising or placement purposes.

Matching your academic profile to a college's means getting to know who you are as a learner – where and why you've struggled, and what you've done to compensate. "Not all GPAs are created equal," says Rich Toledo, director of admission at the University of the Pacific in California. "We want to uncover and sort of lift the hood on what's behind it."

Close attention to the whole transcript, for instance, can reveal that a student's grades have trended from freshman B's and C's to a junior year of mostly A's, and in rigorous, challenging classes – a likely sign of increasing maturity.

It doesn't necessarily follow that you have to load up with honors or AP courses that don't make sense for you. But students should clearly have placed themselves on a "trajectory that suggests that they're moving in a direction that's going to allow them to succeed in college," says Don Honeman, dean of admissions and financial aid at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

If you've stumbled, consider being upfront about blemishes on your record. "Having grades of C or below in your transcript is not the kiss of death," says Amy Greenwald Foley, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Delaware. But "having grades of C or below and not acknowledging them can be."