If My Grades Are Bad, Can I Still Go To College?

The short answer is yes.  I’ve worked with a number of students who had bad grades in high school, but went on to do well in college.  I’ve also worked with a few, however, who weren’t quite ready for prime time.

So while the answer is yes, a student with bad grades can still go to college, there are other questions that we must consider to determine the best course of action for a student with low grades.

if I get bad grades can I still go to collegeFirst of all, why are your grades so poor?  Is it because you experienced some sort of traumatic event early in high school that has colored your experience?  For example, students who lose a parent or sibling may lose focus in high school, and their performance may suffer.  Illness also can have a negative impact on one’s academic performance:  missing a lot of school can make it difficult to keep up.

However, if your grades reflect poor choices on your part, it’s going to be harder to convince an admissions officer that you’re really college material.  If you skip class, neglect to hand in assignments, or refuse to study for tests, perhaps continuing with school is not really something you want to do.  I’ve had some students tell me that they really want to go to college, but that they really hate school.  I have to remind them that college is, in fact, school.

And this fact leads to some other troubling facts.  Generally only slightly more than half of students who start a four-year degree complete it—even within six years.  While there are many reasons for which students may not complete their Bachelors degree, students with poor academic records in high school are among the least likely to graduate from college.  In fact, if you graduate at within the bottom 25% of your high school class, you HAVE an X chance of completing your Bachelor’s.

Before you lose heart, remember that these are aggregate statistics, and you may well be one of the people who beats the statistical odds.  Still, you need to consider carefully whether more school is really your best route to success—or whether you should consider other routes.

Certainly the structure of university life is very different from the more rigid structures of secondary school, but you will still be expected to do your homework, attend lectures and labs, study for tests, and write research papers.  And whereas high schools are pretty much required to let you keep coming back to class despite your poor performance, a college or university can throw you out if you refuse to do the academic work.

Thus it is crucial for you to consider whether your current poor choices really will change once you arrive on a college campus.  Or, if you were one of those students who suffered some sort of personal setback, extenuating circumstance, or other difficulty, you might want to ask whether the circumstances have changed enough for you to refocus yourself academically and perform better in the future.

Assuming that you have made the decision to pursue college despite your lackluster transcript, or that your circumstances have changed enough for you to succeed, then you need to consider which educational path will be the best for you.


Your choices may be more limited than those of an academically focused student.  But you still have choices.


Start at a Community College

Most community colleges have “open enrollment” policies, whereby anyone—regardless of academic history—can enroll.  You may be asked to take a basic placement test in English and mathematics to ensure that you have the fundamental skills to do college-level work.  Those who perform poorly on these tests will be asked to take some remedial work before starting college-level work.  But if you can pass these placement tests, then you’re off and running.

Community colleges also are much less expensive than four-year colleges, generally speaking.  Therefore if you are worried about whether you really can improve your performance in college, then it makes sense to spend a bit less money to prove to yourself that you are ready and that you can succeed.

The best thing about starting at a community college is that many, many courses are automatically transferable to your state’s four-year institution.  Thus you can conceivably take all your general education requirements at the community college and transfer to your state college or university without losing any credits.  Of course, you will need to research exactly which credits are transferable and which are not.  But if you perform well (and perhaps even complete your Associates degree) at the community college, you will find that you have become a highly desirable candidate for admission—even at competitive colleges and universities that would never have even considered you at the end of your (less than stellar) high school career.

One example of how community colleges can be the gateway to a four year college is in Massachusetts, where community colleges are offering pre-engineering Associates degrees that are easily transferred not only to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, but also to Northeastern University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Western New England College.

Thus even students with poor high school grades may be able to graduate from their state flagship university—or even a selective private university.  For example, I worked with a student whose high school record was very poor, and whose parents refused to pay for anything more than community college.  Their philosophy is that their son had squandered four years of cost-free public high school, and they were unwilling to pay for him to continue to make bad choices.  They did tell him, however, that if he earned his Associates degree from the local community college—at his own expense—that they would pay for whatever four-year college he would accept him.  At the end of two years, he got into a selective, private university as a transfer student.  His Bachelor’s diploma bears the name of that four-year university.  Only people who know him well have any idea that barely graduated from high school with a D average!


Attend a Less-Selective Four-Year College or University

Many public and private colleges and universities that are relatively forgiving of a poor high school record.  In fact, the vast majority of colleges and universities in the US accept 75% or more of the students who apply.  In order to admit you in good conscience, however, it will be critical for you to convince the admissions people that your circumstances have changed, that you have mended your ways, and that your past choices will not determine those that you will make in the future.

Some colleges also specialize in assisting these “diamonds in the rough” or “late bloomers.”  They provide extra academic support, and may have more requirements (including, for example, taking attendance in lectures).  Other colleges may accept students on a provisional or probationary basis:  you are accepted on the assumption that you will maintain your grades at a certain level—or else you will be asked not to return for the next semester.

if I get bad grades can I still go to collegeFor students with learning differences that have had a marked negative impact on their academic performance will want to make sure they apply to schools that can help them to develop strategies for future success.  These schools have learning specialists, adaptive technologies, professional tutors, and many other resources that can help ensure academic success.

Students with weak academic histories who elect to go directly to a four-year college need to be especially careful in choosing an appropriate college.  They also need to be brutally honest with themselves about how the relative lack of daily structure, the increased expectations of personal responsibility, and the existence of countless campus distractions and temptations all may conspire to lure students into a continuation of their bad choices.  Students who really want to change bad habits will need to pick colleges that will help them stay on the straight and narrow.

By the same token, it is also important to keep in mind that it can be hard to go “cold turkey” into a life of stoic, academic asceticism.  If you cannot find ways to balance a bit of fun with serious academic study, then you are likely to become unhappy—and you may not stick with college long enough to complete your degree—and achieve your goals.


Take Some Time Out

If high school has not been successful for you, perhaps you need to take some time out to work, travel the world, or otherwise get your act together.  Many students have a difficult time seeing the direct relevance of academic work to their lives.  They are confused about their direction in life, and they may not be listening to the adults in their lives who harp at them about the importance of a college education.

I often recommend a gap year or interim experience for students for who do want to continue their education, but who are not really ready to dedicate themselves to more classroom time, more homework assignments, and more final exams.  Taking a gap year (or two) can be a very healthy alternative for some students, especially if they take the time and effort to plan their year.  Planning is key:  the difference between stopping out and dropping out is a well-conceived plan.

What you do depends on your imagination and your interests.  For example, you may decide to focus on the world of work by pursuing an internship or apprenticeship.  For example, Dynamy, in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a well-regarded year-long internship experience to help students gain experience and explore possible career paths.  Others may choose to perform community services, through organizations such as City Year or AmeriCorps.  Even taking some time to be a ski bum (perhaps earning a ski instructor’s certification from Flying Fish) can give a student the time and space to figure out how a college education fits into their own priorities.

The military, too, can serve as a solid plan for taking time out from school.  You can learn valuable skills, train for a profession, and serve your country. And then, once you are ready for college, the government will help you pay for it.

But what will colleges think if you don’t go directly from high school to college?  Colleges are happy to accept older, more directed students.  As we have discussed, about half of students who start college complete their degrees in six years.  If you apply after a year or two of work experience, travel, or internships, you will be more mature and more directed as you enter college.  From the college’s perspective, you are probably more likely to complete your degree than the pea-green freshman who has no idea what he wants out of college.

As an example, every year my alma mater profiles non-traditional students who are admitted to Dartmouth.  I had several classmates who were much older than I, who had been in the military, or who had spent a few years building log cabins, who had focused on their athletic abilities for a while, who had established their own business, or who had just bummed around until they figured out how a college education fit into their personal goals.  Sometimes—and for some people—taking time out between high school and college can be a wise choice.

So to come back to our original question, even the student with poor grades in high school still has a shot at a college education.  The American educational system allows for second chances:  it’s not completely unusual to hear of people in their 80s and 90s who finally achieve their goal of a college education.  Your high school grades may make it impossible for you to walk a straight line right into college.  But if you make good choices, develop some self-discipline, and set goals for yourself, you can attain all your goals—and more.


Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


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About the Author

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

273 Responses to “If My Grades Are Bad, Can I Still Go To College?”

  1. Cassi Lente says:

    Hello, I am a senior this year. I want to go straight to a university, but my grades have suffered in the past. I suffer from ADHD, and the lowest grade I had freshman year was a D in advanced physical science. I had a C+ in Pre- AP English, an A in Spanish, and the rest of my grades were above a C. They were either A’s of B’s, but I don’t have my transcript here right now and I don’t know the specifics. In sophomore year, I switched schools after the first quarter due to relentless bullying. By the end of the year, I had a B in honors sophomore English, a C in AP World History (which I did not take the exam for), a C in P.E., a C- in geometry, a C or C- in chemistry, an A- in Spanish. Junior year, my grandma passed away and I went into a suicidal depression and I was apathetic about school work. The first quarter I had all A’s and B’s. By the end of second semester, my worst grades were in AP Biology, which was a D. By the end of the year, I had a D in AP U.S. History, an A in Japanese, an F in AP Biology, and F in Algebra 2, either a C or a B in English, and an A in computer applications. (Although I bombed the classes, I got a 3 and passed both of my AP exams). I have an above average PSAT/SAT score, and I passed the ASVAB with results that were “exceedingly high and beyond the capabilities of a woman” (even though I’m not sure that the ASVAB is important). If I submit a college application to a university, will they also look at my senior year (in which I plan to do better)? Is there anything I could do to help myself of having a better chance of being admitted? I don’t want them to just look at my bad years, I also want them to look to see if I have improved. Please help me!

  2. Zack says:

    Hey, so i’m a High school Student and about to get into grade 13 for my A level program.
    I did not perform well in my As level as i got B in math , 2 D’s in Chem and Busniess and a U in physic. I live in the UAE and im really interested in studying in the US. I would like to know that are there any chances of me getting accepted into US Universities such as Perdue U, Columbia U or Boston U for example. My interest was first towards Mechanical Engineering but i guess that cant be done now due to my terrible grade in Phy. My second field of interest is in Chemical engineering, therefore i would like to know that am i still capable of getting into a chemical engineering and that will the universities accept me ?
    And do you have any Ideas or tips on what step should I take besides getting into a community college as i’m really not keen in doing that.

    Thank you,

  3. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Zack.
    You are correct that getting into places like Purdue, Columbia, or BU will be difficult with those AS-level results. Of course it depends a bit on other factors, but these schools are tremendously competitive and will be able to find plenty of other kids from around the world that have all grades of A on their AS levels.
    The good news is that you can still 1) get into a four-year university, and 2) pursue your interests in engineering. But you will probably have to regroup and reconsider which engineering schools in the US will be most likely to accept you, and to think about which programs fit you best. You may also want to consider doing a 3/2 program in engineering at at liberal arts college, which might offer you a direct entry into a place like Columbia, Dartmouth, or CalTech for that engineering degree.
    You are exactly the sort of student that we like to help. You have potential, you have ambition, but you have a track record that needs to be assessed carefully and calibrated to the sorts of schools that will help you achieve your objectives. Please let us know if we can help. Click on the “contact” form at the top of the page and shoot us a note!
    Best of luck to you!

  4. Mark Montgomery says:

    Dear Dawood,
    You can definitely find an engineering program that will take you. But you don’t say what that Chemistry grade is, nor do you say what “well” is for Math, Physics, and Geography. So it’s hard to make a recommendation about how to proceed. If you are retaking the exam, when do you plan to enter a US university? If you would like guidance, please click the “contact” form at the top of the page and we can tell you more about our services.
    Best of luck.

  5. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Payton.
    The answer is an emphatic yes. If you’ve had some struggles that you have recently resolved, and if your performance dramatically improves because of your increased focus and effort, then you will be judged more on the present than on the past.
    So get out there and work hard to bring up your grades and show the world what you are made of.
    Good luck.

  6. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi Pat.
    Thanks for the inquiry. I’m not really able to offer any specific career advice without meeting him. We could administer an aptitude test to get more information, if you like, and we could do an initial assessment to clarify some of the issues. You say he is not interested in any of the “trades,” but these days there are more “trades” than you can shake a stick at. What you and he probably hope for is his ability to identify some of his interests, to make his ADHD work for him (as opposed to against him), and help him find a satisfying career that will support him and offer him lots of upside potential. Only about 25% of Americans hold bachelors degrees, but that does not mean that 75% of Americans are flipping burgers. So the answer is yes, there are other career paths. But what those might be for your son in particular? We’d have to learn more in order to be of assistance.
    If you’d like to chat more, please fill out our contact or initial meeting form, and let’s see if we can help.

  7. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Cassi,
    Seems like you’ve been through the wringer. Here are a couple of thoughts for you.
    1. Your past will not hold you back if your present and future tell a completely different story. If you are back on track, working hard, and getting completely different results than in the past, then this will benefit you in the long run.
    2. Colleges do look at the first semester of senior year when they make their decisions. Most do not see second semester until after your application has been reviewed and decided upon (one way or another).
    3. Given your bad grades, you may need to consider a semester or two of a junior college or community college before applying to a four-year school (depending on what four-year school you most desire to attend). This may not be absolutely necessary, but likely important if you are aiming for more selective universities.
    4. Your ADHD, if documented and supported by a IEP or 504 plan, will be considered by colleges that offer a “holistic” approach to admissions. They may be able to cut you some slack. Not a ton of slack. But some.
    5. You do not mention how far “above average” your SAT scores are. The higher, the better. These can help mitigate the effects of a bad transcript.
    6. That said, you cannot simply wipe away your transcript. It will live with you for a while. What you need to consider is how to amass countervailing evidence of your abilities. Senior grades are important. So are SAT scores. Your passing grades for the APs are also good (but 5s would obviously be better tun 3s). Dual enrollment courses, and possibly community college courses could also help provide more evidence. Teacher recommendations and counselor recommendations will also be important, so be sure to talk to them about your concerns.

    I don’t have any magic answers for you, Cassi, but I hope you find these points helpful. Keep up the good work and don’t lose heart. If you take the long view, everything will work out just great!


  8. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, there. Thanks for your message. As you note, I’m really not an expert on universities in the Philippines. I think you need to find adults in your school with whom you can confide about both your aspirations and your frustrations. You need someone who understands the system, your school, and especially YOU, and who can offer more concrete advice. This is also true with regard to the bullying. If you are afraid at school, you need to find allies who can help you, and who can help you navigate what seems to be a difficult situation. I wish I could be more specific in my advice, but know that there are people around you who will be willing to lend a hand–if only you ask for it.
    Good luck!

  9. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Tori.
    Your counselor is right: take the long view. You may not be able to leap from your present circumstances into a nuclear engineering program. You need to amass more evidence of your abilities. Your attendance record and lower grades may not get you directly into competitive engineering programs. That said, I have seen all sorts of kids start out slowly, either at liberal arts colleges with 3/2 engineering programs, or who start at community colleges and do a lot of basic prerequisites and general education requirements who are able to become very successful scientists, business executives, and other professionals. Do not focus only on the immediate obstacles. Look long term, further down the road, and you’ll see tons of opportunity. Your path toward that opportunity may not be straight, but you will get there if you buckle down, perform, and gather evidence of your true talents.
    Best of luck to you!

  10. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Cam.
    You need to talk to your school guidance counselor immediately. Please fill out my contact form on the top of this page, too, so that I can connect with you.
    Thanks. Happy to try to help.

  11. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Jenny.
    You should probably talk to your school guidance counselor about your options. As you know, the UC system has some pretty strict requirements about the number of years of each subject that students must take in order to be considered for admission. Few states are as clear as California. It’s clear you have some tough decisions to make, but I think it would be best to talk to someone in your school who knows you, knows your options at your school, and understands the UC system. This triple whammy of information can help you more than I can.
    Give it a whirl and let me know what you decide!

  12. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Erica.
    I’m not an expert on the Irish system, so I can’t really prognosticate. What was the outcome? Please let me know. Thinking of you!

  13. Mark Montgomery says:

    Medicine is super competitive . What country are you from? Unfortunately, your university placement in most of the IGSC/A-Level systems is based on your exam scores. Whether or not you can repeat is something you should discuss with your school officials. I’m sorry I’m not able to give you more specific information, but definitely talk to guidance counselors at your school for advice.
    Best of luck,

  14. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Maria.
    Let me see if I can give you a boost in mood. First off, your fear is normal. Most high achieving kids are worried at this time of year. Second, you may have to find more balance in your life to ensure that your grades are as high as you want them to be. If you are traveling and over-involved in school activities, your grades may suffer–which could make it harder to enter U of Michigan. With regard to medicine, calm down: you cannot study medicine as an undergraduate, so you don’t have to make that decision yet (nor will colleges be that interested in your decision about whether or not to attend medical school 5 years from now, as you have to get through college–and organic chemistry–first! Finally, just make sure you develop a list of colleges to which to apply that is balanced with “dream schools” and more realistic plays. (Also, have you thought through how you will finance your dreams…very important point!). Anyway, just don’t worry so much about the future. Control the things you can control, and then leave those things you cannot control behind. Find enjoyment every day, and keep telling yourself you will achieve your goals. Because you will.

  15. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Dre,
    You have had it rough, it seems. It also seems you’ve made some bad decisions in the past. The issue is this: what evidence do you have to present to both coaches and administrators that you are academically prepared for college, and that you can play ball at a high level? No one is going to take your word for it: they need evidence. Now, if your grades were bad, in high school, you don’t have that evidence to support you. A GED is a basic qualification: it is not an indicator of high academic achievement. Do you have a transcript from a college or university with good grades on it? The ACT may not be all that fun to take, but it could also be evidence of your abilities. So take it. If you get a high score, then you can put this into your portfolio: “see? I have the smarts to do college!” If you don’t take it, well, you still don’t have any evidence of potential.
    I would tell you that you’d probably have the best chance, athletically and academically, if you went to a two-year college with a football (or track) team. Your age may be a factor in your eligibility for NCAA play, but we’d have to research that more (and I’d have to have a few more specifics on you). But I’m guessing that a NJCAA school might be happy to take you, help you get yourself back on the academic path, and thereby brighten your future considerably.
    Hope these ideas are helpful to you.

  16. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Rachel,
    First off, drop all the AP courses. You are not excelling in them, and they are doing you no good. Recapturing credits will not help you much. Better to choose courses that suit you better and excel than to take something that is (for whatever reason) too hard or stressful for you and fail out. Please have a heart-to-heart with your guidance counselor and figure out a more realistic plan to get you through high school without having to constantly retake courses. This is just a silly and inefficient choice. Make a different choice! Dial it down and excel, and then if you find you are better able to succeed, dial it back up in the future.
    Best regards and good luck,

  17. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Michelle,
    The issue is this: do your grades indicate that you are academically ready for college? You have made up all the grades, but now you are a senior and you are going to be asked to present evidence that you are “college material.” I can’t answer the question, but I can review the evidence provided, and I can say that most admissions folks will have a lot of questions. I assume your 1350 SAT is over three tests. That comes to an average of 450 on each section, which is below the national average. The extracurricular involvements–including Miss Congeniality–will not counterbalance academic evidence that is, well, underwhelming.
    If you want to go to a UC or even a CSU school, you need to begin to work harder in school. You need to get good grades the first time around, not on the second. And you may need to consider alternative paths to getting your degree, including attending one of the many high quality community colleges in California–and then transfer. Remember, this game is all about amassing evidence of ability and potential. You need to take a careful look at the evidence you have collected and assess it realistically. This is what admissions folks will do. Whether you have a chance lies in their hands and–most especially–yours.
    Best of luck,

  18. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi Miss M.
    I’m guessing this is resolved by now and that you are attending the Culinary Institute of America.
    Let me know!

  19. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Michelle. Thanks for writing in. Ordinarily a handicap is not an automatic bar to attending college. Let me know if I can be helpful

  20. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Laura,
    Since you have a very specific question, and I don’t know much about the programs you are speaking about, I think it might be best if you contact me through the contact form on this website. I can give you more specific help that way.

  21. Pravin says:

    Hello, I am from INDIA and i wanna do my MS in US in good university. i hav decent GRE and TOFEL score but my CGPA is very poor is it possible to for me to get admission in any national university ?

  22. Mark Montgomery says:

    It is nearly always possible to get admission, but where you are admitted depends on your academic record. It’s not really possible to assess your chances, as I don’t have any specifics. And I’m also not sure what you want to study, or whether you require financial resources to attend. All these factors, and more, will determine whether you can be accepted. Let me know if you’d like more specific, professional advice. Happy to try to help.
    Best regards,

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