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.
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"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."
It's important to communicate what you've learned from the experience and how you improved (or will), and not make excuses or blame a teacher. A letter of recommendation from the instructor who has witnessed the struggle might do the job best, says Sharon Grice, director of admission operations at Cornell College in Iowa. He or she can talk about your work ethic, study skills and dedication.
When the transcript and test scores don't say everything about potential, the admissions essay can be the place to shine. "I feel like my writing had sway," says Julia Yenco, of Queens, N.Y., who has a passion for communications, but struggled in high school with math, which contributed to her having an overall average of about 2.3.
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After making up a failed math class in summer school and conveying her enthusiasm for reading and writing in her essay and other parts of her application (she detailed, for example, her Saturdays of community service helping younger students with their writing), she was accepted at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. She finished her first year there this May with a 3.0 average and a campus job writing for the communications office. "I feel like I found my place," she says.
What are some attributes of schools that serve late bloomers well? Counselors suggest looking for programs that ease the transition to college-level work, such as freshman seminars and learning communities, as well as tutoring programs and more than just minimal academic advising.
In the learning communities at schools like the University of Wisconsin—Madison, Temple University in Philadelphia, Washington State University, the University of Utah and Elon University in North Carolina, students with similar academic or other interests live in the same hall, and sometimes take one or more classes together. Being part of a community of learners "where people will know you by name," says O'Connell, can be a really important ingredient of success.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2014” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.