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Will Failing a Class Impact My Application?

What’s Covered:


It’s many students’ worst nightmare: failing a class. Whether due to external stressors, challenging course material, or any number of other factors, failing a class is never a good thing. After all, when it comes time to apply to colleges, admissions committees place a good deal of importance on your transcript and academic abilities. Especially when you are competing against students with near perfect academic records, seeing that failing grade on your transcript may feel like the end of the world. But is it?


Will a Failing Grade Impact My Application?


The short answer is yes, a failing grade will have a negative impact on your application. After all, colleges are academic institutions that want to admit students who will succeed in a rigorous and demanding intellectual environment. If you have performed poorly in a high school class, admissions officers may be skeptical of your ability to thrive at their school.


That being said, a failing grade doesn’t have to be the end of the world. There are a lot of factors that can influence how colleges look at your failed class, and some ways to shed a more positive light on it. While it’s less than ideal, it doesn’t define your entire application, and if you frame it right, it shouldn’t have to ruin your chances at your dream school.  


Factors That Impact How Colleges Perceive Your Failing Grade


The Class You Failed


One consideration that affects the impact a failed class has on your application is the course you failed, and how important it is to your academic history. Failing a math course as an aspiring engineer has far graver implications than failing a journalism course as a potential doctor. If the class you failed is in a subject that is not directly related to your intended major or career path, it probably will have less of an impact.


On the flip side, failing a class that is extremely important to what you plan on studying has far more of an impact on your overall application. This would seriously call into question your ability to thrive in your future course of study, and cast doubt on your specific strengths as a student and applicant.


Additionally, failing a core class (English/language arts, math, science, history/social studies, and foreign language) is far more significant than failing an elective, or other less central course. In all likelihood, many of the universities that you will be applying to have some type of general education requirements that significantly draw from the material of the four core academic fields.


Not only is doing well in these courses imperative to demonstrating your all around academic prowess, but it is also imperative to demonstrating your ability to succeed in the future. What’s more, even non-gen ed courses significantly rely upon the skills and expertise you cultivate in these core subjects. For instance, even if you fail mathematics and intend to concentrate in an entirely unrelated field, like Comparative Literature, it’s possible that your struggles in math may be interpreted by admissions officers as underdeveloped problem solving and/or analytical abilities—skills that are central to many different academic fields.


However, elective courses tend to be less indicative of deeper academic concerns, and thus the grades you make in these courses are less important when evaluating your overall application. While not ideal, a poor performance in a visual arts or physical education course is far less likely to exclude a future lawyer’s or data scientist’s application from serious consideration.


To summarize: the less related a class is to both your core academic abilities and future intellectual and employment goals, the less of an impact it will have on your application.


When You Failed the Class


Another consideration admissions officers will keep in mind when weighing a failing grade the year or semester that you failed this class. Overall, freshman and sophomore year grades are weighed less heavily than grades in junior and senior year. There are various reasons for this. For one thing, colleges know that there is an adjustment period when it comes to high school. For many students, the transition from middle to high school can be a challenging and difficult time. The increase in course rigor can be debilitating for some, and colleges are cognizant of this. Thus, they allow for a certain degree leniency when it comes to evaluating early grades.


Additionally, academic abilities, motivations, and goals are steadily developing and evolving as one progresses through high school. Just because a student was undermotivated freshman year does not mean that they do not have a great mind, and it certainly does not mean that they cannot turn that lack of motivation around.


So, if your failed grade is from the beginning of high school, it won’t be counted against you as harshly. However, if you fail a class later on in high school it will not only receive more scrutiny, but it will also raise more questions. 


Overall Grade Trends


If you are the kind of applicant who really turned things around during their high school career, colleges want to be able to see that—and see it clearly. If you started off with a less than ideal transcript, it is important to show significant growth and improvement during the course of your high school career.


Upward grade trends can be extremely compelling. A student who started off with mediocre grades, or even a failing grade, during their freshman year but then applied themselves and started earning consistent A’s in upper level courses during their later years shows great dedication and a commitment to improvement. Both of these qualities are attractive to admissions officers, and make the student a more competitive applicant for their school.


On the other hand, a downward grade trajectory can be concerning. If you started off with fantastic grades early on, but consistently dropped off towards the end of your high school career, admissions officers are unlikely to be as forgiving. For one thing, a downward trend may communicate loss of motivation and a decrease in your dedication to academics.


Additionally, the grades you earn later on in high school are far more reflective of the grades you will earn in college. Thus, admissions officers may interpret bad academic performances in your junior and senior year as indicative of future bad academic performance once you start at your university, which school’s won’t want to take a chance on.


Overall Context Within Your Application


Of course, like many other factors, a failing or poor grade will be taken within the context of your overall application. If you are, on the whole, a great, high performing student who had one single slip up in a very difficult class, colleges are much more likely to be understanding, so long as the rest of your high school transcript reflects academic excellence. Colleges recognize that applicants are human and perfection isn’t possible. Keep in mind, however, that the more competitive a school is the less room you have for these kinds of mistakes.


On the other side of things, sometimes the overall context of your application may increase the significance of a failing grade. If you fail a class multiple times, fail a class later on in your high school career, or, as we previously discussed, have a downward grade trend, this signals a lack of motivation and application on your part, which will give admissions officers significant cause for concern.


If colleges have any reason to believe that your poor academic performance is not an outlier but rather a consistent trend, you can assume that this will significantly hurt your application.


Extenuating Circumstances


Finally, your personal circumstances can also impact how a failing grade is interpreted. If you have extenuating circumstances that have significantly impacted your ability to perform in the classroom, it’s important to let colleges know. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, students face challenges that impact their transcript, and that is okay. However, it is imperative to ensure that colleges are able to evaluate that transcript with full knowledge of the circumstances that have impacted it.


Ensure you are open and honest about the circumstances surrounding a less than ideal academic performance, so that colleges are aware of the scope and magnitude of these circumstances. Whether you address this via a counselor recommendation, a personal essay, or in the ‘Additional Information’ section of your application, it is important that you communicate what exactly led to a grade that you feel isn’t reflective of your intellectual capacity and/or your ability to succeed in college. 


How Much Will Failing a Class Impact You?


No two applicants are exactly the same, and you may be wondering how much failing a class is going to impact you personally. A lot of variables go into answering this question, from when you failed the class, to what the class was, and of course, what the rest of your application looks like. CollegeVine’s free chancing engine can help answer that question for you, as it factors in not only your grades, but also extracurriculars, test scores if you have them, and other elements of your profile to determine your chances of admission at over 1500 schools.


How To Compensate For Having Failed a Class


The best way to compensate for having failed a class is by putting your failing grade in context, and by making the rest of your application as strong as possible. So, what is the best way to do that?


First, if there’s any important context that might help explain why you failed, it’s important to include that in your application—that’s exactly what the Additional Information section is for. Remember not to make excuses, or invent a reason that isn’t true or didn’t contribute significantly to your failing grade. Be straightforward and honest if you have important extenuating circumstances, and focus on improving your application in other ways if you don’t. 


You can compensate for a slightly weaker transcript with strong test scores. Even if the schools you are considering are test optional, focus on getting the best standardized test scores possible, to offset the negative impact of failing a class. This can be particularly effective if the class you failed is directly or indirectly part of a standardized test, as this can show that you have mastered the material since failing. 


Emphasizing your other strengths in your application also helps colleges view your application holistically and see you as a strong candidate, even if your academic history isn’t perfect. A rich, detailed extracurricular profile and well-written essays can go a long way to minimizing the impact of a failed class. If you’re looking to make sure your essays are as strong as possible, you can check out our free Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. College admissions experts at CollegeVine can also help you present yourself in the best possible light. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!


Finally, a good letter of recommendation that speaks to positive aspects of your character and your perseverance after failing can help. Talk to your recommenders about the qualities you hope they will be able to emphasize in your letters, and if you can, provide them with examples that they may have forgotten or a resume of your accomplishments outside of their class. Depending on your relationship with the teacher whose class you failed, you could consider asking them to write one of your letters to touch upon your growth since that experience. 


Failing a class can be a scary experience and it might have you feeling like your hopes of college admissions are over, but rest assured, you can make up for early setbacks and still situate yourself to be a competitive candidate at your dream schools. 

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.