By all counts, you are a hardworking high school student. You take challenging classes, you are fully involved in a number of extracurricular activities, and you have polished your standardized test-taking skills. You’re on the fast track to college admissions success, right?

 

But what if there’s a stumbling point along the way, and you receive a less-than-stellar grade, even just once during your high school career? Can you throw away your lowest score? Will colleges give you the benefit of the doubt? Or is it game over all because of one C on your high school transcript?

 

As most high school students know, the grades you receive are an important factor in college admissions. When you fill out your college applications, you’ll be asked for your GPA, class rank, and an official transcript from your high school. All of these things will reflect the grades you’ve earned over the past four years, and all will be adversely affected if you receive even one grade below your average.

 

Most top colleges weigh your grades fairly heavily. After all, your grades are viewed as an indication of your dedication and ability to tackle challenging academic work. If you receive one C during your high school years, it may ultimately affect your chances of getting into a top school. However, it won’t automatically exclude you from one. Instead, it will make earning an acceptance a little harder for you, as you’ll have to compensate in other areas. You will need to set yourself apart from the other students with similar profiles who did not receive a C in high school.

 

How heavily the C is weighted, and how much you need to compensate for it, will depend on a few factors. In this post, we outline the major factors that affect how heavily a single grade is weighted in college admissions.

 

While receiving a C won’t do you any favors, it also doesn’t have to mean that top colleges are completely out of reach. To learn more about how a C on your transcript will affect your chance at admission to a top college, read on.

 

When Did You Receive the C?

One of the most important factors in how a blemish on your transcript is interpreted is the timing of when you received it. Getting a C in your freshman year leaves plenty of room for improvement and allows time to establish an upward grade trend. But getting a C in your junior or senior year is almost always more cause for concern.

 

If you receive a C during your freshman year, it can usually be attributed to the adjustment period that some students take at the beginning of high school. While it will still impact your GPA and your class rank, it will also allow plenty of time to establish yourself as academically capable. It won’t create the image of a student who is unable to handle challenging work, if you can achieve high grades consistently in the semesters that follow.

 

Alternatively, if you receive a C during your junior or senior year, you will have much more to compensate for when it comes to college admissions. College admissions committees might interpret receiving a C during these important semesters as a warning sign that you aren’t as academically capable as some of your peers. It will also establish a downward grade trend, which is never a good thing.

 

To learn more about how the timing of your grades impacts your college admission chances, check out these posts:

 

 

What Class Did You Receive It In?   

While the timing of your C is probably the most important factor in determining how much it impacts your chances at college acceptance, the class you receive it in is a close second in many cases. There are times when you might receive grades in nonacademic classes. There are also times when you apply to specific programs at certain colleges. These factors will also affect how important that C on your transcript really is.

 

At some schools, even electives or nonacademic classes are graded. For example, perhaps you attend a school where students receive a grade in Physical Education, and perhaps you really flopped during PE this semester. If that’s the case, and you receive a C in PE, you may be given the benefit of the doubt by some college admissions committees. After all, unless you are applying to a program in PE instruction, your grade is PE is probably not hugely indicative of how well you will do at that particular college.

 

This brings us to the next consideration, which is how closely linked the C is to your intended path of study. Sometimes, students apply to specific programs when they are applying to college. For example, maybe you are trying to get into the engineering program at a top school. If this is the case, a C in English Literature will have less impact on your application than a C in AP Physics. While it doesn’t mean that your C will be swept completely under the rug, it does give you a little more wiggle room if the class you received it in is completely unrelated to the program you’re applying to. Of course, in order for this to hold true, you will need to show your strengths in more relevant areas of curriculum by receiving stellar grades in them.

 

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Do Your Other Grades Make Up For It?

Another factor that will certainly be considered is how out of character this C actually is. College admissions committees generally look at grades in context and consider them a part of a bigger pattern. For that reason, your C matters in the context of your other grades.

 

If, for example, you have scraped by with Bs and the odd B+ and B-, then a C is actually not far off from the pattern you’ve already established. In fact, a C would be no more out of character for you than an A would be. 

 

On the other hand, if you are a straight-A student, a single C would truly be an anomaly. If this is the case, you can often explain the C in a way that highlights how uncharacteristic it really is. We will talk more about how to explain these circumstances in the next section. 

 

Another way to think of the context of your C is in terms of your GPA. If you have received exceptional grades aside from the C, your GPA will probably still be pretty high. Obviously it will suffer a bit, but it won’t be indicative of a C student. On the other hand, if your other grades are mostly Bs, the C will further pull your GPA down since the Bs aren’t enough to compensate for it.

 

Are Your Extracurriculars Truly Exceptional?

While grades are undoubtedly an important part of your college applications, they are not the only consideration. Receiving a below average grade is not always the determining factor.

 

Think of your place in college admissions as part of a larger applicant pool. In this pool, admissions committees look for students who are truly remarkable. Some students will stand out for their stellar grades and test scores; others will stand out for remarkable or unique extracurricular pursuits. Generally, at the most selective schools, you will need to have both.

 

However, sometimes you excel so much in a particular extracurricular that you become what is referred to as a “hooked” or specialized applicant. This isn’t easy, and it generally requires prolonged commitment and achievement in a truly unique activity or niche skill set. For example,  perhaps you have competed internationally in chess or you have published a successful novel. These highly distinctive achievements will certainly set you apart, and your grades will ultimately be less important than they are for a student without such an achievement.

 

To learn more about how truly exceptional extracurricular achievement affects your application, see these posts:

 

 

Can You Explain Why You Got a C?

There are sometimes uncontrollable circumstances that affect your performance in high school. If this is the case, you should address these circumstances directly on your application. Never leave an admissions committee to wonder why you received an out-of-character grade. If you do not explain it, they will probably assume you were simply not capable of the work.

 

If you experienced physical or mental health issues, family problems, or other exceptional circumstances that negatively impacted your grades, you need to address them openly and honestly on your applications. You can usually do so in an essay or in the additional information section on your application.

 

For more information about addressing these issues, read How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on Applications.

 

For a dedicated high school student who has worked hard to build a competitive profile, a single blemish on your high school transcript can sometimes seem like the end of the world. While it’s true that receiving a C in any high school class will usually have some effect on your college application, there are many other factors at play.

 

College admissions committees will weigh your profile against others in the applicant pool. Although it will be hard to compete with students who put forth a similar profile as you without any Cs, there are many other ways to compensate or set yourself apart.

 

When you received the C, what class you received it in, and how the rest of your application compensates for it are all factors that will weigh into how the admissions committee evaluates you. Sometimes, extenuating circumstances may even discount a below average grade if you are able to explain them honestly and openly.

 

If you’re unsure about how to present your academic history on your college applications, you might consider College Application Guidance Program, which provides access to a one-on-one admissions coach who guides you through each step of the process. 

 

For more information about the impact your grades have on your college application, see these posts:

 

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Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist