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Will Failing a Class Impact My Application?

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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 applying to colleges, arguably the most important factor is your transcript and demonstrated ability to succeed academically. 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 your 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.


Why do colleges care if I failed a class?


Admissions officers want to admit students who will contribute to their intellectual community. They are looking for applicants that they think will introduce surprising and unique ideas during seminars, ask relevant and intelligent questions at the ends of lectures, and be an integral part of a valuable member of their community of scholars. Thus, if they have any doubt with regards to your academic abilities, they may have several reservations when it comes to extending you an offer of admission.


Additionally, let’s face it: college classes are hard. Especially in your first year of university, you must be able to balance a host of challenges in addition to a very demanding workload. Not only are you taking more high level courses than ever before and attempting to meet the demands of significantly more demanding coursework, but you’re also dealing with the difficulties of adjusting to a college lifestyle.


Learning to live on your own, managing roommate relationships, and even just figuring out how to do your laundry all require some serious commitment and adaptability on your part. In addition, you’re creating new friendships, joining time consuming extracurricular activities, and exploring everything university life has to offer.


In short, you have a lot of external commitments that will require a good deal of time and energy. Thus, if you were unable to perform particularly well under the far more manageable challenges of high school life, admissions officers will seriously doubt your ability to juggle a full college course load in addition to all of the various stressors we’ve mentioned above.  


Why does this matter? Colleges care about their graduation rate, for one thing. You’ll often see universities touting their 98+% 4-year graduation rate as a major marker of student success at their school. The higher the graduation rate, the better, because this indicates that the university is educating students who are extremely capable and committed to their education.


Additionally, colleges genuinely care about their students and consider an applicant’s potential to thrive at their specific university when deciding whether or not to grant that applicant admission. Admissions officers want to make sure that they’re admitting students who will be happy at their school, because happy students make for positive contributors to a college’s community.


That being said, failing a class does not mean your application is irrevocably doomed. While a failing grade on your transcript will certainly affect your chances of admissions, the degree to which it do so varies based on your individual circumstances. Depending on several different factors, a failing grade may not necessarily be as damning as you may initially think.


What Course Did You Fail?

One consideration to 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 (language arts, math, science, and history/social studies) is far more significant than failing an elective, foreign language, 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 significant 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, 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 course is far less likely to exclude a future lawyer’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 Did You Fail the Class?


Another consideration admissions officers will keep in mind when weighing a failing grade is when exactly you failed this class. Overall, grades in freshman, and to a lesser extent sophomore year 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.


Chances are, by the time you are applying to college you are not the same kind of student you were when first entering high school. It is extremely likely that your intellectual abilities have been sharpened, your goals have shifted, and your approach to school work is different. While you may not have been the ideal candidate for a specific school early on in your high school career, it is extremely possible that by the time you are ready to apply to college three years later, you are exactly what the school is looking for.


Thus, colleges also don’t expect all applicants to have been the perfect student right from the get go. If you are the kind of applicant who really turned things around during their high school career, however, 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.


However, 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 are start at your university.


What is the Overall Context of 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 forgiving so long as the rest of your high school transcript reflects this.


Ultimately, colleges understand that their applicants are only human and do make mistakes. No student can be perfect in every regard, and one failing grade is unlikely to do any lasting damage to your application to most schools if the rest of your application clearly demonstrates that you are an overall capable and qualified student. 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 significantly impact your ability to perform in the classroom, it is important to let colleges know. There are many things that may go on in a student’s life that precludes them from performing to the best of their academic ability, and colleges know and understand this.


What is most important is to be open and honest about the circumstances surrounding a less than ideal academic performance, and understand that colleges are aware of the scope and magnitude of these circumstances. Whether you address this via a counselor recommendation, a personal essay, or as supplemental information, it is important that you are communicative about what exactly has led to a grade that you do not feel should be considered reflective or your intellectual capacity and/or your ability to succeed in college. 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.


No student ever wants to see a failing grade on their report card, and no college likes to see a failing grade on an applicant’s transcript. Though this situation is never desirable, it is not always debilitating to an applicant’s chances at admission. Less than ideal grades do not translate to game over when it comes to college admissions; rather, colleges know that their students are prone to mistakes, difficulties, and external circumstances. Thus, you can rest assured that schools will look at all angles of a failing grade, and depending on the various surrounding circumstances, the impact of poor performance may not significantly impact your overall college application.


Wondering how your grades impact your chances of acceptance? Our free chancing engine takes your standardized test scores, GPA, extracurriculars, and other factors to let you know your odds of acceptance. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applications, and give you tips for improving your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey!

Lydia Tahraoui
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lydia is a Social Studies concentrator at Harvard University who is deeply committed to helping guide students through the college admissions process. In addition to writing for the CollegeVine blog, Lydia enjoys analyzing Middle Eastern and North African politics and keeping up with all things pop culture.