What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on Applications

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Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story


Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

Calculate your acceptance chances

Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story


Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

Calculate your acceptance chances

What’s Covered:


If you’re a student with a less-than-perfect academic, extracurricular, or disciplinary history, filling out college applications can often be a nerve-wracking experience. As all colleges (not just elite private institutions) become increasingly competitive each year, having a rough patch or two on your academic record can be extremely discouraging. It’s easy to feel as if a below-average GPA for your dream school or a history of disciplinary action will totally disqualify you, but the truth is, they might not.


What Does “Exceptional Personal Circumstances” Mean?


“Exceptional personal circumstances” is an intentionally broad term. College admissions teams want to give you the chance to talk about anything that may have impacted your ability to perform academically, or something that stands out on your record as a negative, like disciplinary action. What the term does not refer to, however, is something you just didn’t have space for in your personal statement, or excuses for poor academic performance.


Common topics for exceptional personal circumstances essays include natural disasters, long illnesses or injuries, legal or disciplinary action, or personal events that significantly disrupted the applicant’s life. You might also write about circumstances that were not single events, nor a significant change, but did represent an additional challenge to completing or engaging with schoolwork. Examples of this might include a time-consuming job to support your family financially, or poor wifi that prevented you from completing homework. 


As you think about whether to write an exceptional personal circumstances essay, consider these questions. 


  • Did the event or events in question affect your ability to attend school? Was school closed, or were you unable to go for any reason?
  • Were you unable to access the resources needed to fully engage with school? Perhaps at times you weren’t able to purchase books, consistently access wifi, or use a computer to research and write papers. 
  • You may have been able to attend school and access resources, but unable to focus and fully participate due to distress or distraction. This could be from events inside or outside the classroom. Perhaps you were grieving a family member or battling chronic migraines. 
  • Finally, are there negative items on your academic or legal record that are going to impact how colleges view you? While you shouldn’t deny or attempt to justify these events, this is a good chance to explain what happened, and how you’ve grown. For example, a student suspended for bullying should explain the events in her own words, taking responsibility and demonstrating that she understands the seriousness of the situation, as failing to address the suspension may show a lack of remorse


If your answer to these questions is “no,” don’t struggle to think of something that maybe could work. By definition, “exceptional personal circumstances” means most people won’t have anything to write about, so unless something immediately jumps into your mind, this opportunity probably isn’t relevant to you.


On the other hand, if you know your circumstances do require some additional explanation, we urge you to provide the admissions committee with all the context they need in order to fully understand your story.


College Applications and Exceptional Personal Circumstances


What students often forget is that the admissions committee at your top-choice school is made up of humans — actual, real human beings — who know that the people whose applications they’re reviewing are humans, too. The admissions process at most private schools and many public schools is holistic — meaning they consider the candidate as a person, not as a set of numbers.


This year, the Common App offers 250 words to discuss how COVID-19 and natural disasters specifically impacted you, and 650 words to elaborate on any other circumstances that are relevant to understanding your high school story. Most other application platforms also provide about 500 words for you to provide any additional information you feel is important for admissions officers to have as they make a decision on your application.


It’s important, however, to keep in mind when choosing whether to write something in the additional information section that you should not simply be blaming your bad GPA on a particular teacher not liking you, or trying to downplay getting suspended for cheating. Whatever you choose to include should substantially enhance colleges’ understanding of you as an applicant, by offering a perspective on your record and you as a person that is not otherwise reflected in your essays.


Tips for Writing About Low GPA, Disciplinary Record, etc.


If you feel as though choosing to write a short essay for the additional information section would add significantly to your application, we have a few tips for how to make the most of this space and how to effectively describe exceptional personal circumstances on your college applications.


Be Honest


Firstly, it’s important to be candid and straightforward. For example, if you were subject to disciplinary action for cheating, it’s not in your best interest to try and downplay your own responsibility for your actions or divert the blame to someone else. This will likely strike admissions committees as a transparent attempt to avoid taking responsibility, and it’s doubtful they’ll be moved by that.


Instead, tell the truth about what happened (honestly and objectively), and emphasize what you learned from the experience rather than focusing on the negative consequences. Take the opportunity to draw a contrast between who you were when you made that mistake and who you are now, as that will demonstrate maturity and growth.


Reflect on Your Experiences


If you had several semesters where your GPA dropped below average, you may be concerned about whether this dip in your cumulative GPA will adversely affect your chances at your top choice schools. While grades are obviously extremely important, a 4.0 is not necessary to gain admission to a great school. If the dip was drastic enough that your chances of acceptance are likely to be substantially affected, however, the additional information section provides you with a space to assure admissions officers that you’re a strong candidate nonetheless.


Begin by trying to identify the reasons why your grades dropped. Did you have additional stressors at home that prevented you from doing your work, or from doing it as well as you could have? Did you suffer from an illness (physical or mental) that impeded your ability to perform to your highest ability at home and in class? If you can explain a clear and legitimate reason why your grades dropped, admissions officers will take that into account when considering your academic record.


Remember That Admissions Are Holistic


Although they are certainly not ideal, B’s and even C’s aren’t automatic disqualifiers from admissions, even at the most selective colleges, and the role of grades in admissions is not as black and white as some might assume. Your GPA, whether it is exceptional or less than stellar, is not the be-all and end-all of your application.


The holistic admissions process is personal to each applicant, and considers all dimensions of your application–including extracurriculars, essays, teacher recs, and, yes, exceptional circumstances–not just your academic performance. And admissions officers know some students are better set up for success than others. If you have had poor grades in the past, but there’s a legitimate reason why, providing a clear explanation can show maturity and resilience, two qualities admissions committees value highly in applicants.


Overall, what the holistic admissions process means is that schools aren’t looking for only academically strong candidates, but also those who will contribute to their overall campus environment. If you are able to characterize yourself as an applicant with the maturity to acknowledge past shortcomings and show how you’ve learned from your mistakes, it can work to mitigate poor grades or lackluster extracurricular involvement.


Show Your Growth


It’s also important to communicate how you’ve improved since your dip in grades/disciplinary action/etc., and how you plan to continue performing well for the remainder of high school and throughout college. If you have an upward grade trend, that can provide strong evidence to corroborate what you say in the additional information section. 


This advice applies to applicants who may have less-than-stellar extracurricular profiles as well. Maybe you struggled with untreated anemia early in high school, and the exhaustion you experienced prevented you from dedicating yourself to after-school activities. In that case, explaining how you’ve made an effort to become more involved in extracurriculars since getting your anemia under control with medication can help reassure admissions officers that you will do your very best to be an engaged member of their campus community.


Also remember that in general, it’s better to display stronger academic habits over time, even if you initially struggled, than to have straight A’s initially but allow yourself to become lazy in your last few semesters. Your more recent academic performance is more indicative of the student you’ll be in college.


Have Realistic Expectations


However, it’s important to note that to be admitted to top schools, providing an explanation and having an upward trend in academic performance won’t completely cancel out a relatively low GPA. While, as mentioned before, GPA is not an absolute determinant of whether or not you will be admitted, it is still among the most important aspects of your application.


To be a strong candidate for top schools, your reason for poor performance must be extremely compelling, such as a serious illness, the death of a family member, or other exceptional family circumstances. The same applies for disciplinary records: while minor infractions are more excusable, major instances of academic dishonesty or repeated offenses will harm your application, regardless of how eloquently you write about them in the additional information section.


Be Direct and to The Point


Finally, as you’re writing your exceptional personal circumstances statement, remember that this is not a second common app essay, nor a supplemental essay where you demonstrate your writing talent. It’s best to keep these essays short and specific, and to state your circumstances as plainly as possible. 


The admissions committee will not be thinking about the strength of your writing. Rather, they will be evaluating your story and its impact on your academic profile. With this in mind, it’s best to take some time to make sure you’re telling your story as clearly and effectively as possible, versus trying to flex your creative writing muscles.


Maximizing Your Chances of Admission


If you choose to utilize the additional information section, it’s crucial that you highlight how learning from past actions has made you a stronger applicant, rather than focusing on the actions themselves and trying to excuse yourself for or otherwise diminish them.


So much of the application process is, essentially, self-marketing: presenting yourself in the best possible light, emphasizing your strengths, and demonstrating how your overall experiences, positive or negative, have made you into the person you are. A subpar GPA, disciplinary record, or lack of extracurricular involvement might seem like the death knell for your shot at admission to a top school, but this isn’t necessarily true. If you can frame that information in a positive way, its adverse impact on your application can be mitigated.


Where to Get Your Additional Info Section Reviewed


If you do have extenuating circumstances you want to explain, you’ll want to be sure your explanation is as clear and informative as possible. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of this essay, or any other, from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.


If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

Short Bio
After graduating from Wesleyan University, Francesca Jette is pursuing a Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at George Washington University. She has been helping high school seniors with college essays for three years now.