Are you worried that your college plans will be derailed by an underwhelming GPA? Don't be discouraged and don't give up on your dream of college! You can still go to a great school, even if you have a low GPA.
Whether you are just starting high school or already at the application stage, read on to see the many things you can do to either raise your GPA, boost the rest of your application, explain your circumstances, or even find an alternate route to a degree.
What Is Considered a Low GPA? Is Your GPA Actually Low?
A low GPA may be a little bit like beauty—in the eye of the beholder. You might feel that your GPA is low because it falls below the average at your target school. Or maybe your grades really aren't so hot. Generally speaking, highly selective colleges consider 3.5 to be on the low end. At most other schools, low GPA scores are in the 2.0 range.
To find out whether your GPA could weight down the rest of your application, first research what the average acceptance GPA is at each of your target schools. To do this, try searching for "[college name] admission GPA" or "[college name] average GPA."
- Is your GPA only slightly below (.1 or .2 points less) the averages you found? Then excellent test scores and a solid application will go a long way to make up for it!
- Is your GPA much lower than the averages you found? The read on for our advice on what to do about it.
Get that GPA up! Higher... higher...
Can You Raise Your GPA?
Grades 9 and 10
If you're a freshman or sophomore, great news! You still have time to get your GPA up through dedicated studying.
For example, imagine Hailey ends freshman year with a GPA of 2.5 (a B-/C+ average). If she then really puts her shoulder to the wheel and gets straight A-'s in 10th grade, her GPA would go up to 3.1. If she continues the hard work and earns more A-'s junior year, she'll be looking at a 3.3 GPA!
With that in mind, ask yourself what is holding your GPA back:
- Are you struggling in a particular subject? Think about getting a tutor to help you catch up, or ask your teacher for extra help outside of class.
- Are you so overwhelmed with extracurricular demands that you don't have enough time to study? If you aren't doing this outside interest at a very high level, think about pulling back a bit to give yourself room to do to schoolwork.
- Are you bored by your classes? This sounds counterintuitive, but think about whether a harder level class will spur extra interest—and extra effort on your part.
Grades 11 and 12
If you are already in the second half of high school, you probably won't be able to significantly raise your GPA.
For example, picture Sven, who ended his junior year with a cumulative GPA of 2.5. Because college applications are due in the middle of senior year, he only has one semester to bring up his grades. Even if he manages to get straight A's during that semester, his GPA will still only be 2.7—not a huge improvement.
But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to do your best anyway:
- Are you doing better and better? Even if your grades are low, if you can show colleges that your GPA is on an upward trend, you will demonstrate that you have untapped potential.
- Are you taking difficult, honors-level classes? Ask your guidance counselor whether your school can provide colleges with a weighted GPA that will give colleges a sense of your challenging course load.
- Do you have the resources to take an extra year? Many private boarding schools offer a postgraduate year (basically a 5th year of high school). Classes that you take during this year factor into your GPA, giving you time to raise it. To find these schools, search for "boarding schools with PG year."
College applications put together the pieces to solve the puzzle of you.
Can You Boost Your Application in Other Ways?
Did you know that although the GPA is very important, it is only one part of the many different things admissions officers take into account? Focusing on these other pieces of the application is a key strategy for offsetting a low GPA.
Boost 1: Raise Your Test Scores
If your GPA shows how you compare to the rest of your classmates, then SAT or ACT scores show how you rank compared to students across the whole country. It's no wonder they are another key component of your college application—and that having high test scores greatly improves your application!
For example, imagine Stella, who would love to go to the University of Georgia. Unfortunately, her not-so-great work habits resulted in a GPA of 3.3, which is below UGA's average. Using our admissions calculator, we can see that If she also gets 1290 on her SAT's, she has only a 17% chance of getting into UGA. But, if she busts her derriere over 3-4 months to get a 1450, her chances of getting in go up to almost 50!
To see how your chances to get into the University of Georgia would change if you GPA stayed the same but your SAT scores goes up, check out our UGA admissions calculator.
To find our admissions tools for other schools, just Google "[name of school] admissions prepscholar" (for example, "UCLA admissions prepscholar").
Boost 2: Hype Your Non-Academic Skills and Talents
It makes no sense to judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree—so admissions officers don't judge applicants only on their academics. If they did, they would miss applicants who have other amazing qualities.
Do You Already Do Remarkable Extracurricular Things?
- Do you play sports at a very high level?
- Are you deeply involved in theater, music, or the visual arts?
- Do you hold an unusually important leadership position in any clubs or organizations?
- Do you spend your free time building impressive things like robots, buildings, or vehicles?
- Are you an entrepreneur who has started a business or two?
If you have skills and talents that don't show up on your transcript, make sure your application makes a big deal out of these other accomplishments. Colleges will be impressed and can even infer that spending so much time on your other talents may have caused your grades to fall a bit.
Can You Start Doing Remarkable Extracurricular Things?
If you're a junior or have the summer before senior year, it's not too late to improve your extracurricular depth. Figure out what you're interested in and good at, and try to take it to the next level. Read our guide to getting into the top schools in the country for more examples of how to do this.
Another way to show off your non-academic talents is to take a gap year between high school and college. However, this only makes sense if you have an opportunity for really meaningful travel, an internship, or a job that will make you a more appealing applicant.
So, taking a year off to surf is probably not the best idea. But, taking a year off to teach English to kids in Ecuador or to participate in AmeriCorps could be just what your application—and your sense of personal achievement and maturity—needs.
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Boost 3: Amaze With Your Essay
The third key element of your college application is the essay. Imagine it: a space reserved just for your voice, where you get to define yourself and what is important to you!
Just how important is the essay? Dean Fred Hargadon, who was the head of admissions at Princeton when I went there, could remember off the top of his head what each admitted student's essay was about!
To set your application apart, consider writing about:
- How excited you are about studying X
- The talents, strengths, or challenges that aren't in your transcript
If you need help getting started, check out our step-by-step guide to writing an outstanding college essay.
Sometimes complicated situations have simple explanations.
Can You Explain Your Low GPA?
Sometimes your GPA is low because of circumstances outside your control. If this is the case you can use the rest of your application to explain and give context.
Was There a Crisis in Your Home?
When you or your family undergoes a period of personal, financial, or health-related upheaval, it's perfectly understandable that your grades could slip.
For example, in 10th grade I became very depressed when my parents got divorced, and my grades that year were B's and C's. Junior year, I brought my grades up, got excellent test scores, and wrote an essay explaining how hard it was to suddenly have to live alone for weeks on end while my mom traveled for her job. My high school counselor also explained the situation, and I ended up going to Princeton.
Colleges are happy to take these kinds of events into consideration, so let them know the difficulty you overcame or are still facing:
- First, write an excellent essay explaining what happened
- Then, make sure your recommendation letter writers also mention these extenuating circumstances
Did You Attend a Failing or Underperforming School?
Unfortunately, not all high schools can provide a great education.
If you went to a school that did not have enough resources, look into programs that cater specifically to students whose circumstances have not allowed their potential to develop. Two examples are:
They will all get you there eventually.
Is There Another Way to Get a College Degree?
If boosting your GPA, raising your test scores, or highlighting your extracurriculars all seem out of reach, you can pursue alternative paths to get a college degree.
Split Up Your College Experience
One option is to transfer from a lower tier college to a higher tier one after one or two years. If you would rather not figure out the logistics of this yourself, consider starting with a community college.
Some state universities now offer "2+2" Programs, affiliating themselves with community colleges so that students can earn an associate degree and then get guaranteed admission to the state university. The advantage of these programs is that you will have advisers keeping you on the right track for your major and course of study.
One example is the 2 Plus 2 Plan at the University of Iowa. To find others, search for "[your state university name] 2+2 program."
Four-Year College Options
There are many schools that will accept students with a very low GPA, and even some that will accept anyone who applies. For example, check out this list of the easiest colleges to get into.
Got high your SAT/ACT scores, but still struggling with a lagging GPA? Learn what to do about it here.
Need to get a handle on the college application process? This infographic lays it all out for you.
Excited to build a dynamic college application? Here is advice on how to make yourself sound competitive anywhere.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.