As a high school student in Tennessee, Austin Herrera knew that he wanted to go to college. But with grades ranging from A's to D's, he knew his options would be limited.
Herrera says he was too distracted in school and his reputation as a class clown, extracurriculars and lack of interest and effort affected his grades. Dyslexia, he says, was another hurdle that affected his grades and confidence.
"I doubted myself and sort of gave up on myself when I saw the grades that I had, because I would work hard and study but I still came out with a low grade," he wrote in an email.
Herrera switched schools his senior year and used the new atmosphere to change direction and focus on the future. Realizing that his past academic problems would affect his admission chances, Herrera used his personal statement to acknowledge his grades, discuss his learning disability and show his interest in studying business and film.
"I explained dyslexia – what it was and how I learned. I just explained that I'm a very hard worker and passionate."
Herrera was accepted into two of the five schools he applied to and now studies film as a freshman at Columbia College Chicago.
For students who struggle academically in high school, the college application process can be especially stressful. The competitive admissions process can make these students feel like college is out of reach, but there are still options.
Admissions experts say students can explain an academic dip in college applications and use the rest of their senior year to make their application more appealing. Students should talk to a counselor to examine all their options, but the following four strategies can help students with poor grades strengthen their college applications.
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1. Take responsibility and offer an explanation: There are many reasons a student's grades can drop, including family issues, illness, a switch in teachers during the year or a lack of maturity. Admissions officials recognize that grades aren't always an indicator of capability, so experts say students need to take the time to write an honest explanation about their grades.
"Everybody makes mistakes; there's not one perfect person out there. But how do you learn from those mistakes – if you can explain it thoughtfully and in a mature way, often times a college is going to understand that," says Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, an educational consulting company.
Students can discuss poor grades in a personal statement or in the additional information field on the Common Application.
"You can point out on it, 'I take full responsibility for the grades that I earned early on. I was not mature enough. I didn't realize the effort that it would take to be successful in high school. I've learned and I've improved,'" says Nancy McDuff, associate vice president for admissions and enrollment management at the University of Georgia.
2. Get recommendation letters from teachers and counselors: A good word from a high school counselor or teacher who knows a student well can go a long way in college admissions, experts say.
"Sometimes a great letter of recommendation can come from a teacher who has seen a student greatly improve their grade and go from very low to very high, even if the student has higher grades in other classes," says IvyWise's Cohen.
Students should develop close relationships with counselors and teachers and have an explicit discussion about what they'd like addressed before a letter is written, experts say.
3. Wait to apply and improve your grades: Early admission is extremely competitive, so experts recommend students with poor grades on their transcripts apply during regular admission and use the extra time to take challenging courses and improve their GPA.
"Focusing on your grades now is critical. There are lots of different ways to improve your grades," says Cohen.
Students should use their teachers as tutors, visiting them frequently to discuss what to focus on and what weaknesses to work on, she says.