How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on Applications

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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.


College Applications and 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 claimed to be holistic — meaning they consider the candidate as a person, not as a set of numbers.


You can use this opportunity to demonstrate you’ve grown both academically and personally since you got that shaky GPA or suspension, and admissions boards will appreciate your honesty.


Most applications provide space of around 500 words for you to provide any additional information you may wish to add to your application. If you feel as though there is a weakness in your application you’d like to tell admissions officers more about, this space provides an excellent opportunity to do so.


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 making excuses for a bad GPA or trying to downplay getting suspended for cheating; whatever you choose to include should substantially improve and develop your application, as well as offer 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.


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; likely, this will strike admissions committees as a transparent attempt to avoid taking responsibility, and they’re unlikely to be moved by your story.


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


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 choices. While grades are obviously extremely important, a 4.0 is not necessary to gain admission to a great school. If you’re worried about your average, the additional information section may provide you with a space to assure admissions officers that you’re a strong candidate nonetheless.


If you know there’s a point where your grades dropped in high school, begin by trying to identify the reasons why. 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 reference a clear and legitimate reason why your grades dropped, admissions officers will take that into account when considering your academic record.


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 grades’ role 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 and considers applicants in all the ways they present themselves in their applications, and not solely based on their academic performance. As in the aforementioned situation, if you have had poor grades in the past, attempting to absolve yourself of responsibility for them likely won’t add much to your application — provide explanations, not excuses.

Want to know your real chances of admission?

Our free Chancing Calculator not only takes into account your academic profile, it also measures other elements admissions officers look at, such as your extracurricular activities. We'll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

It’s also important to communicate how you’ve improved since then, 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 for weakness in extracurricular activities as well, especially if you became involved in more extracurricular activities in your later years of high school.


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.


Because the admissions process for most top colleges is said to be holistic, these schools aren’t looking only for academically strong candidates, but those who will contribute to the 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 extracurricular involvement.


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 whether you choose to write on them in the additional information section.


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: knowing how best to present yourself, emphasizing strengths, and demonstrating how your experiences have made you into the person you are. A subpar GPA, disciplinary record, or lack of 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 lessened.


Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2019-2020.


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Short bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.