High School Grades Don't Always Accurately Reflect Your Ability

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During your college interview, you can justify aspects of your academic performance that are not reflective of your true academic ability. Use this opportunity to your benefit and strengthen your application by providing context for bad grades.

College Interview Tips: Explaining Weak Grades

  • Explain weak grades only if they are truly weak (not a B+, for example), and only if there are extenuating circumstances that caused the grades.
  • Never blame others for less-than-ideal grades. Take responsibility for your performance.
  • Look beyond your bad grades and explain what you have learned about academic success.

When to Explain a Weak Grade

Some college interview questions provide you with an opportunity to explain bad grades in your academic record. Most colleges have holistic admissions processes, meaning that they want to get to know you as a person outside of grades and test scores. Your interviewer knows that you are only human and that certain circumstances can affect performance but there is a time and place for making these justifications.

Don't hesitate to spell out extenuating circumstances out of your control that influenced a bad grade. Many events can affect grades: Your parents divorced, a close friend or family member died, you were hospitalized, or other serious events. These are perfectly rational substantiations.

That said, don't succumb to whining or grade lawyering. If you have mostly A's, you do not need to come up with an excuse for one B+ and you should never blame others for your academic performance. Complaining about a teacher that didn't give you an A will not make you seem like a reasonable and grounded prospective student. Your missteps are your own and interviewers will be more impressed by humility than over-confidence.

Responses to Avoid

When asked to justify poor grades, there are certain answers that will only make the situation worse. Avoid the following responses that would leave a bad impression on your interviewer rather than bring context and understanding to your grades.

Poor responses to the question, "Can you explain this grade?" include:

  • "I'm very good at math but my teacher didn't like me. That's why I got a C+." This response suggests that you lack maturity—no admissions officer will believe that a teacher is that biased and unprofessional and they will think you aren't telling the truth. Even if a teacher didn't like you, don't highlight this in a college interviewer and call attention to your unlikable qualities.
  • "I worked really hard, so I don't know why my grades weren't higher." This response makes you sound clueless and aloof. Students who truly don't understand low grades are not attractive to a college because this shows that they are not prepared to learn from mistakes. Successful students identify what went wrong and work to correct it.
  • "I would have put more effort into my classes but I was too busy with my job and/or sports." This response may be honest but it is far from shrewd. Having hobbies and interests outside of class is a positive quality but successful college students have strong time management skills and prioritize academics above everything.

Good Interview Question Responses

There are many ways to leave a positive impression when your record and abilities are called into question. In general, take ownership of your grades and justify them only if the extenuating circumstances are legitimate.

The following responses would be appropriate answers to the question, "Can you explain this grade?":

  • "My parents got divorced at the beginning of my sophomore year and I'm afraid I was too distracted to put forth my best effort at school." This justification is fair. Big upheavals at home—divorce, death, abuse, frequent moves—can make it difficult to perform well at school. Your interviewer will want to know about domestic issues that are represented in your grades and hear how you managed them. Ideally, your academic record shows that a dip in grades was short-lived and you got back on your feet.
  • "I had surgery in 9th grade and was on a lot of pain medications." Serious illness or surgery is almost guaranteed to disrupt your academics and this is definitely worth noting. Make sure you are talking about serious health issues and searching for understanding rather than pity.
  • "My record accurately reflects my effort. I didn't work as hard as I should have in 9th grade but by 10th grade, I figured out how to be a successful student." The honesty of this response will most likely go over well with admissions officers. Some students learn how to succeed before others, and there is nothing wrong with this—it shows that you worked harder to triumph. In general, colleges will be just as pleased with upward trends as four years of repeated success.

Explain What You Have Learned

We all have missteps and make mistakes. This happens in high school and it will happen in college. Good students, however, learn from their mistakes. If asked to explain less-than-ideal grades, do more than discuss the context that led to those grades. Also look beyond the grades. What could you have done differently? What have you learned about academic success? How are you a better student now than when you earned those grades? Show your college interviewer that you are a thoughtful and introspective person who learns and grows from setbacks.

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Grove, Allen. "High School Grades Don't Always Accurately Reflect Your Ability." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/grades-reflect-effort-and-ability-788856. Grove, Allen. (2020, August 27). High School Grades Don't Always Accurately Reflect Your Ability. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/grades-reflect-effort-and-ability-788856 Grove, Allen. "High School Grades Don't Always Accurately Reflect Your Ability." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/grades-reflect-effort-and-ability-788856 (accessed March 25, 2023).