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 Get Into a Competitive School if You Struggled in High School

Is your profile on track for college admissions?

Our free guidance platform determines your real college chances using your current profile and provides personalized recommendations for how to improve it.

If you’re a student who has dreams of attending a competitive university but have a shaky academic record, hearing tales of classmates’ perfect grades or countless leadership positions can be frustrating. It’s easy to feel like without that stellar GPA or resume, it’s impossible to gain acceptance to the school of your dreams. But are your chances shot if you didn’t make straight A’s throughout high school? Not necessarily. Read on to find how you can maximize your chances for admission at competitive schools, even if you don’t have the strongest academic record.


Turn Things Around – ASAP


If you’re in your sophomore or junior year, there’s good news: you can still turn things around! Some students get to their second or third year and realize that goofing around at the beginning of their high school career won’t reflect very well on their college applications, especially if they have competitive schools in mind. Therefore, if you have the time to dedicate to school and the ability to turn your grades around, it’s vital that you do so as soon as possible!


Talk to your guidance counselor for time management tips, reach out to peers for help with classes you’re struggling in, and take full advantage of your revitalized motivation. A large portion of your success in academics is determined by how driven you are, and if you have the desire to turn those C’s on your transcripts into A’s, the biggest obstacle standing in your way is yourself.


It’s also important not to neglect extracurriculars; it’s never too late to join a club or a team and commit yourself to it.


Even if you’ve only been a member of an organization for a year and everyone else has been involved since they were freshmen, you can compensate for a lack of time with enthusiasm and passion. If you’re especially dedicated to your involvement in clubs, teams, or other groups, you can even work your way up to leadership positions.


That being said, students often receive poor grades or are uninvolved on campus through no fault of their own. Lack of access to academic resources, lack of free time because of the need to work or watch siblings, an illness or disability — all these factors and more can make it difficult for students to perform optimally in school or in extracurriculars, which in turn can reflect an inaccurate picture of the student on their college applications.


They key here, too, lies in reaching out to others for help. Guidance counselors can help students get access to the resources they need to be academically successful and offer valuable advice on time management and application tips.


These disadvantages may prevent some students from being fully able to realize their academic potential, but help from others often at least alleviates some of the pressure off students who don’t have as much time to spend on schoolwork as their classmates.


Extracurricular groups can also serve as opportunities to form close relationships with fellow students and teachers, which can provide the support network struggling students need to pull up flagging grades and further their involvement on campus.


Finally, keep in mind that many competitive schools practice holistic admissions; they evaluate students not only on the basis of GPA, but also extracurricular involvement, personal circumstances, and demonstrated personality strengths. If you display a positive trend of GPA increases or extracurricular involvement, it shows adcoms that you care about your education and you’re committed to success.


Put a Positive Spin on Your Application


If you’re a senior who’s applying to college this year, your struggles in high school can actually bring a unique perspective to your applications. The whole point of the personal statement is to communicate to an admissions committee who you are, and what makes you tick. If you were a previously unmotivated student who found the inspiration and dedication to turn your academic career around, that can make for an effective personal statement.


The same is true for students who have faced circumstances that have made it difficult for them to perform to the best of their ability in school. If your access to an education was limited in some way by personal circumstances or illness, you can use your struggles as evidence of your positive qualities that make you a strong applicant. Colleges are responsive to students who have stories of overcoming adversity, so don’t be afraid to speak frankly about the challenges you’ve overcome.


In addition, the Common App (and most other major applications) provide a space for students to elaborate upon any personal circumstances or information not otherwise reflected in the application. This can be a great opportunity to explain poor grades or involvement on applications, and to describe in more detail specific circumstances or obstacles that may have not been fully addressed in a personal statement.


Take a Gap Year or Attend a Community College


If you’re not confident about your chances of admission to the school of your choice, you don’t have to apply right away. Many students take gap years following graduation from high school.


There are a variety of ways to spend a gap year: working, traveling, studying, or participating in a specialized program for gap year students. All these activities and the extra time provide you an opportunity to pad an otherwise meager resume and accrue new experiences and perspectives that may better prepare you to apply for college.


You also have the option of attending a community college and transferring after two years. Applying as a community college student greatly downgrades the importance of your high school record (including test scores) so if you’re looking for a fresh start, a community college might be the right option for you.


In addition, many community colleges have agreements with public universities in the same state, in which completion of a certain number of credits with high enough grades guarantees admission as a transfer student.


Just like in high school, there are myriad opportunities to get involved in extracurricular or volunteer activities as a community college student. Look into clubs or teams at your community college, and seek opportunities to volunteer or intern in your field. You can also work as a community college student, which can give you an edge over undergraduates at traditional universities who may not have time to accrue work experience.


Attend a Different School and Transfer… or Not


Another option available to you if you’re not confident about your prospects at your top choice school is to attend another 4 year college or university with the goal of transferring to the school of your choice after one or two years.


As with community college, applying as a transfer student essentially voids your performance in high school. So earning top marks at a less selective university may pave the way to acceptance as a transfer student at a more competitive university.


There is also the possibility that after a year or two at your current university you no longer wish to transfer schools. What you want as a high school senior can be vastly different from what you want as a college student, and approaching your experience at your current college without a narrow and constricting idea of what your college experience should be may allow you to realize you’ve found the perfect place to spend the next four years.


Acceptance rate is not the only indicator of a school’s quality, and it is by no means the only indicator of whether a school is a good fit for you. Entering college with a free and open mind can ultimately lead you to success in ways other than what you may have originally planned.


Though you may assume the only way to gain acceptance to a competitive school is by getting perfect grades and being club president all four years, these are by no means the only paths to success. While in all honesty, it is difficult to get into competitive schools if you have a less-than-stellar high school record, there are steps you can take to give yourself the best chance possible – even if it requires waiting a year or two, it’s not impossible! Regardless of where you end up, the ultimate metric of success is what you accomplish, not what school you go to.


Want access to expert college guidance — for free? When you create your free CollegeVine account, you will find out your real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve your profile, and get your questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.

Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

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.