Numbers never lie, or so the saying goes.
Your GPA purports to be an objective measure of your performance in your high school classes. But a variety of factors undermine the objectivity of GPAs:
An A in one class might not be as difficult to achieve as a B in another. A personal crisis might make achieving a 3.0 in one semester a more impressive achievement than earning a 3.7 in another. A high GPA freshman year might not reflect the same level of engagement or understanding as a high GPA junior year, even though GPA counts all years the same.
GPA is certainly a major factor in college admissions, but it’s far from the only one. College admissions committees read your application holistically: GPA, SAT and ACT scores, extracurricular activities, and admissions essays combine to create a more thorough portrait of you as a student and a person.
And so, if you have a low GPA, here are a few strategic workarounds to consider as you prepare to apply to college.
1. Figure out if you actually have a low GPA.
“Low” is a relative term. Your GPA is only “low” if it will deny you admission to the school of your choice. The average GPA for the 2017 entering class to UCLA is 4.39. For the 2017 University of Michigan class, 3.87. For the 2016 Penn State class, 3.6. Do some investigating. Find out what “low” means for your schools of choice. And remember: an average is not a cutoff. Many students gained admission to these schools with GPAs below these averages.
But if your GPA is below average for a given school, you’ll need to make up the difference in other parts of your application.
2. Get ready to ace the SAT or ACT.
If the number attached to your GPA is low, make sure to make up for it with stellar standardized test scores. Prepare early and often. The SAT and ACT are like foreign languages—they can be mastered by immersing yourself in the logic of the tests, by making the tests a part of your everyday life for months, even years ahead of time.
If you’re a senior with a low GPA, then hopefully you’ve been preparing for the SAT or ACT or already have a stellar test score. If you’re a junior with a low GPA, start test preparation today, and prepare to stick with it for the next 11 to 12 months. If you’re a sophomore, start preparing for these tests now—you’ll learn quickly that there is no such thing as too much practice.
3. Get involved.
Your extracurricular activities reflect a level of engagement both with your surrounding community and with your personal passions. Universities don’t want to admit drones that simply file in and out of class, get great grades for four years, and disappear, never to be heard from again. They want interesting and engaged members of their student and future alumni community.
Think broadly about extracurricular activities. These can include involvement in a club or team at your high school, volunteer work, or community service, but they can also include a personal hobby or a job outside of school.
4. Write your way in.
Admissions essays are an opportunity for you to represent yourself as a compelling admissions candidate despite what the numbers may say about you. When choosing extracurricular activities, it is especially important to choose opportunities that are especially meaningful to you; not only will you find purpose and motivation in the time spent on these activities, but you provide yourself with material to write a meaningful and convincing narrative about yourself.
Spend your time wisely. Whether you know it or not, you are always in the process of writing your life’s story. In your college essays, that story can either help or hinder your chances of getting into your schools of choice.
College essays also offer an opportunity to account for why your GPA is low. Have you experienced a crisis at home? Had to work a job to support your family? If you have experienced any obstacles that would prevent you from achieving your best grades, you can share that information in your college essays.
The point here isn’t to garner sympathy—it’s to craft a narrative about your four years in high school that will help admissions committees understand who you are, where you’re coming from, and what lessons you’ve learned that will make you a productive member of their university community.
For these reasons, it is important to start early on your college essays. Get a sense of what each university requires in these essays, and get to work on them as soon as possible. Have a teacher, tutor, or mentor read and critique your essays. Work through as many drafts as possible.
Almost without exception, your first draft is unlikely to help you gain admission to your dream school.
5. Think outside the box.
A low GPA will likely keep you out of the highest ranked schools in the country—and that might be a very, very good thing.
Some of the most meaningful educational, social, and pre-professional experiences might be waiting for you at schools that you haven’t even heard of, or at universities you think of as second- or third-tier. As has been apparent for years now, the Ivy League isn’t a golden ticket to success.
In fact, in my experience advising and teaching university students, the closest thing to a golden ticket I’ve found comes in a combination package: (1) a strong work ethic, (2) a university setting that will empower you to pursue your passions rather than encourage you to conform to imaginary standards, (3) a major that matches your interests and talents, (4) and a department with professors willing and able to cultivate those talents.
Most students are unlikely to find this formula in the schools with the biggest names. For many, the Ivy League and the like can inspire unproductive stress from academic competition and (often unjustified but real) feelings of intellectual inadequacy.
If a school does not value your life experiences enough to overlook your low GPA, then that’s not the right school for you, anyway. Your admission to college is an award for success in high school, but your goal should be success in college. That means finding the school that will foster your best self.
Want more information? Check out these posts on finding the right fit, writing a compelling personal statement, and writing about real-life events in your college essay.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.