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Should You Explain a Bad Grade When Applying to College?

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As most college-bound students know, the college application is a space for showing off. You want to put your absolute best foot forward to wow those college admissions committees. Sometimes, though, there are less than flattering aspects of your application that you simply can’t avoid.


If you have received a less than stellar grade, you might be wondering how you should address it on your college application. If it’s on your transcript, it’s something that you definitely can’t hide. So, what should you do? In this post we’ll discuss the various scenarios in which you might explain a bad grade, and how you can go about doing so. If you’re wondering what to do about a blemish on your transcript, don’t miss our advice.


When You Should Explain a Bad Grade on Your Transcript

It’s appropriate to address a bad grade on your transcript in a few different scenarios, but the common thread in each is that there is a perfectly good explanation for your bad grade. You may be a conscientious, hard working, intelligent student, but even the most perfect student might sometimes get a bad grade under extenuating circumstances.


For example, if you went through significant personal changes, a family emergency, or another unavoidable event that had an impact on your academic work, you will definitely want to explain what happened. This includes things like a serious illness, the death of a family member, moving to a new school, or a similar, unavoidable event.


Keep in mind that if you want to explain a bad grade and have your explanation bear any weight, it needs to be significantly different from your normal performance. If you have received a series of grades in the range of B- and C+, explaining a C or a C- won’t affect your application much. Instead, the bad grade or grades need to significantly differ from the grades you normally achieve. Explaining a C or C- will be much easier if you normally pull a perfect GPA.


At the same time, the grades you’re explaining need to be an isolated event. If you get perfect grades during freshman year and then get sick during your sophomore year and get all Cs during the second semester, you’ll only be able to explain them if your grades go back up after your illness passes. If your blemish falls towards the end of your transcript and you don’t have time for it to reflect an improvement, you might even explain that you are now back on track and that the admissions committee can expect to see improvement on your second semester grades.


If your grades suffer significantly due to an unavoidable event, and you are able to recover afterwards, there is a good chance that an admissions committee will be sympathetic to your explanation.

When You Should Not Explain a Bad Grade on Your Transcript

It’s important to remember that admissions committees literally see thousands of applications and they are familiar with a broad variety of personal circumstances. If your circumstances are not likely to stand out as extenuating or unusual, there’s no need to explain a bad grade. Sometimes they just happen, and trying to explain it as though it’s not your fault may come off as an unwillingness to accept personal responsibility.


For example, if you normally receive grades in the B-range but during your junior year you fell in with the wrong crowd, put less time into studying, and got some grades in the lower-C range, you don’t have a very good excuse for the blemish on your transcript. Rather than trying to explain it, you should let your performance speak for itself and work extra hard to hit higher grades during your senior year.


Similarly, there’s no reason to explain grades that aren’t significantly different from your normal achievements. If you are used to getting all Bs, but then get the flu and get an B- in geometry your sophomore year, the admissions committee probably doesn’t need to hear about it. After all, the grade is not much different from your usual performance, and getting the flu isn’t exactly a unique scenario to face in high school.


If you are wondering if you should explain a bad grade on your transcript, ask yourself these questions first:


  • Is the bad grade an isolated event?
  • Is the bad grade easily explained by a situation that is unique and extenuating?
  • Is the bad grade significantly different from my usual performance?


If the answer to any of these questions is no, think carefully before explaining the blemish on your transcript. You may want to discuss your decision with a guidance counselor or teacher first to gain some more perspective.


How To Explain a Bad Grade On Your College Application

Don’t use your personal essay to explain a bad grade unless there is another reason for doing so. For example, if you experienced a traumatic car accident during your junior year and your grades suffered because of it, you should only discuss it in your personal statement if it was also personally significant in other ways. If you grew as a person, learned about yourself, or developed new perspective, you might address the accident in your personal essay. Then, your discussion of its impact on your grades has more context in the bigger picture.


On the other hand, if the only reason you are addressing the accident on your application is because of its impact on your grades, you should include this elsewhere. There are probably more important things you could discuss in your personal statement.


Instead, it’s usually best to address the extenuating circumstances behind a poor grade in the “Additional Information” part of your application. For more information about addressing something of this nature on your college application, see our posts How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on Applications and Additional Information about Common App’s ‘Additional Information’ Section.


If there is any question about whether you should explain a bad grade on your transcript, consider getting another opinion. Ask a trusted teacher, guidance counselor, or another mentor for their perspective.


For more information about how a blemish on your transcript will impact your college application, don’t miss these posts:


Will Failing a Class Impact My Application?

Can I Get Into a Top College With a C on My Transcript?

How to Get Into a Competitive School if You Struggled in High School

Can a Good SAT/ACT Score Offset a Bad GPA?


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
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.