What If I Just Can’t Bring Up My Grade in That One Challenging Class?
You’ve worked hard to achieve a shining high school transcript and standardized test scores to match. You participate in a variety of extracurriculars but have a clear area of specialty that makes you truly unique. You’re a strong leader, a hard worker, and a devoted community member. By almost every count you should be a shoe-in at any college. But what if math just isn’t your thing? Or what if your writing skills are a little lacking and always have been? What happens when you just can’t bring up your grade in that one pesky subject area? Are top colleges out of your reach?
We at CollegeVine know that no one’s perfect. We’re used to helping students overcome obstacles and spin less strong subject areas as positively as possible. In this post, we’ll explore the implications of a single bad grade, explain some options for what you can do to head off its negative impact on your college admissions chances, and offer some broader perspective that will help to guide your approach to college applications and beyond.
Choosing Courses That Match Your Abilities
The easiest way to avoid that single less-than-stellar grade is to avoid that class altogether. While you might be tempted to sign up for every AP course and honors track possible, you need to set realistic goals based on your own strengths and abilities. By all means, choose courses that challenge you, but don’t choose courses that are completely beyond your abilities.
And definitely, don’t be tempted to jump ahead too quickly in an attempt to build an ultra-impressive transcript. Ultimately, performing well in an easier class is always better than failing a difficult one.
In addition, taking a course that’s too challenging for you might have a greater impact on your overall academic performance. If you’re stressed out and expending more time than usual on a single class, your performance in other classes might suffer. You might achieve poorer grades across the board or be unable to extend your usual time and effort to important extracurriculars. In the worst-case scenario, your own mental health or personal relationships could even suffer.
Instead, it’s best to avoid the situation completely by selecting classes that strike the right balance for your abilities. Sometimes this means taking an objective step back, recognizing the areas in which you are prepared to handle the most challenging coursework, and acknowledging the areas in which you aren’t.
For more information about selecting the right classes for your abilities, check out these posts:
- What Math Courses Should I Take?
- Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?
- How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take
How to Get Help if You’re In Over Your Head
Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and if you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that you’re already enrolled in a class that is proving to be somewhat beyond your abilities. If this is the case, you’re not completely out of luck. There are a few key avenues you should explore to get the help you need.
First of all, rest assured that it is absolutely okay to ask for help. In fact, we encourage it. Ask your teacher, your guidance counselor, a friend, or a family member. If they can’t help you in this particular subject area, they might be able to point you in the direction of someone who can.
Your parents might be willing to get you a tutor, or your friend might be willing to work with you one-on-one. Teachers may even meet with you after school or during their free periods. No one wants to see you fail, so there is no reason for you to struggle alone. You just need to ask for help.
You could explore existing video tutorials in the subject area. Khan Academy is one great resource for this.
Finally, consider joining a study group or enrichment group. Sometimes, hearing a different perspective, especially from someone else who also previously struggled to grasp the content, can offer the additional insight that you need.
Even if a certain subject never “clicks” with you, there are many avenues to get the help you need to get through an important class. It’s possible that you may be better at certain subfields within a subject. So, while you might struggle with geometry, you could find that algebra comes easily to you. Once you get past this course, you might find the next one easier. It’s always worth your best effort to get through it.
There are times, though, when it might become clear that you’ve exhausted your resources and still are not going to be able to pass the class with a respectable grade. If this is the case, you need to consider your other options.
At some schools, you might be allowed to switch from an honors or AP course to a regular version of the course during the semester. You’ll need to check your school’s offerings and policies to see if this is an option for you. This is a particularly good choice if you need to fulfill a graduation requirement in that subject area but have realized that your chosen course is too difficult a track for you.
Another option is to drop the class completely. This is something that you should consider very carefully and discuss with your teacher and guidance counselor in advance. Many schools have only a narrow window in which you’re allowed to drop classes without them appearing on your transcript. You should be aware that if you drop a class outside of this window, it may appear on your transcript as a Failure Due to Withdrawal, or similar notation. You can learn more about the decision to drop a course in our posts, Should I Drop an AP, IB, or Honors Class? and How Do I Decide to Drop a Course?.
A Realistic College List
Finally, as you set your sights on your dream colleges, you need to be realistic about your own strengths and abilities. Ivy League schools generally require strong grades across all subject areas. While there’s nothing to prevent you from applying to them even if you have struggled in one area, you should keep in mind that you will be at a disadvantage if you’ve taken a less challenging course track or achieved less than stellar grades in a particular subject area.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you won’t be accepted, but it does mean that you’ll need to make up for this deficit in other ways on your application. That is, you’ll need to truly excel in other areas if you hope to gain acceptance.
Also keep in mind that in order to get the most out of your college experience, you need to attend a school that is genuinely a good fit for you. It may be tempting to get wound up in the name or prestige of certain colleges, but ultimately the most important factor should be how well a college fits your specific goals and needs.
If you’re struggling to keep up with a specific challenging course track in high school, it’s likely that you could continue to struggle with it in college if you attend a highly selective school with core requirements in that subject area.
The same can be said for your intended career path. If you have always struggled with math, but you’re interested in becoming an engineer because it seems exciting and fun, you may need to critically evaluate the feasibility of this path compared with your own areas of strength. Are there other, similar fields that might be better suited for you?
By keeping a realistic perspective, you will be able to strike the right balance of coursework that challenges your abilities without overextending yourself.
Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!
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To learn more about course selection, see these posts:
- Decisions, Decisions: Choosing Classes as a High-School Senior
- Choosing a Major for Your College Application
- Can You Be An Engineer Without Taking AP Physics: How the Classes You Take Affect Your Chances at Admission
- How to Pick Your High School Courses Freshman and Sophomore Years
- The Dangers of Overcommitting: How Taking on Too Much Can Hurt Your Applications
- An Updated Introductory Guide to Course Selection
- What You Should Be Thinking About as a Junior — Part I: Academics + Standardized Tests