Should You Explain a Bad Grade When Applying to College?

Learn when you should and should not make a big deal out of a grade

A failing report card

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It's tempting to explain a bad grade on your high school transcript when you are applying to college. After all, there's usually a story behind every bad grade. This article explains when you should and shouldn't explain a sub-par grade, and it addresses how to do so in case an explanation is needed.

The Importance of Grades in College Admissions

Bad grades matter when applying to college. Nearly every college will tell you that a strong academic record is the most important part of your college application. SAT scores and ACT scores also matter, but they represent a few hours of effort on a Saturday morning.

On the other hand, your academic record represents hundreds of hours of effort over the course of four years. Success in challenging AP, IB, dual enrollment, and Honors classes tend to be a far greater predictor of college success than any high-pressure standardized test.

If a college has holistic admissions, non-numerical factors such as admission essays, college interviews, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities can play an important part in the admissions process. If these parts of your application are impressive, they can help compensate for an academic record that is slightly less than ideal.

The reality, however, is that nothing will make up for grades that aren't on target for admission to a highly selective school. If you're applying to an Ivy League school, those "B" and "C" grades on your transcript can quickly land your application in the rejection pile. 

Situations in Which You Should Not Explain a Bad Grade

In most cases, college admissions officers don't want to hear the sob stories behind a low grade or bad semester. The excuses don't change the fact that your GPA is lower than they'd like to see, and in many situations, you run the risk of sounding like a whiner.

Here are some cases in which you should not attempt to explain your grades:

  • The grade actually isn't that bad: You'll sound like a grade grubber if you try to explain the "B+" on your otherwise straight "A" transcript.
  • You did poorly because of relationship problems: Sure it happens. It will probably happen again in college. But the admissions officers don't need to know about your love life.
  • You did poorly because you didn't like the teacher: If you go down this road, you'll sound like someone who blames the teacher for your own shortcomings. Sure, there are bad teachers in high school. There will be bad professors in college as well.
  • Your teacher was unfair: Even if it's true, you'll sound like you like to point the finger at anyone but yourself.

Situations in Which It Does Make Sense to Explain a Bad Grade

There are cases, of course, in which an explanation of a bad grade is a good idea. Some circumstances are entirely outside of your control, and revealing these can give the admissions officers important information to your case. A brief explanation is worthwhile in cases such as these:

  • Your grade is an isolated event: If your transcript is full of Cs, providing reasons for a D would be redundant. However, if you are typically a stellar student and happen to have a slip-up, this is when you may be able to explain it.
  • You had a serious injury or illness: We're talking a hospital stay here, not the flu or a broken arm.
  • You had a death in your immediate family: "Immediate family" here doesn't mean your great aunt or second cousin, but the death of a parent, sibling, or guardian.
  • You were caught in the middle of an ugly divorce: A volatile domestic situation can clearly and understandably disrupt your studies.
  • You moved in the middle of the academic year: This, too, is understandably disruptive of your studies.

How to Go About Explaining Bad Grades

If you do have a situation for which explaining a bad grade is a good idea, make sure you go about it the right way. Do not use your essay to explain academic shortcomings. That would be a rather poor choice for an essay topic unless it is related to a situation that profoundly affected you as a person and the main focus of your essay is on that and not your grades.

In fact, the best way to tell the admissions folks about your extenuating circumstances is to have your guidance counselor do it for you. The explanation will have more credibility coming from an outside source who knows your personal and academic situation.

If your guidance counselor isn't an option, a simple and brief note in the supplemental section of your application will suffice. Don't dwell on the issue—you want your application to be highlighting your strengths and passions, not your problems.