Should You Explain a Bad Grade When Applying to College?

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 bad grade, and it addresses how you should explain any sub-par grades.

Bad grades matter when applying to college. Since your academic record is the most important part of your college application, you have good reason to be concerned if you have the occasional 'C' (or worse) on your transcript, or if you had a semester that was notably below your norm.

That said, in most cases, college admissions officers don't want to hear the sob stories behind a bad grade or bad semester. The excuses don't change the fact that your GPA is lower than they'd like to see, and you might come off 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. 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.
  • Your teacher was unfair. Even if it's true, you'll sound like you like to point the finger at anyone but yourself.

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

    • 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.

    If you do have a situation for which explaining a bad grade is a good idea, make sure you go about explaining the grade in the right way. Do not use your essay to explain academic shortcomings (see the article on bad essay topics). 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, and there's no danger of you sounding neurotic, whiny, or uptight. 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.

    Related Article: Is a High Grade or Challenging Course More Important?