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

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    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.

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

      1. Audrey Williams says:

        Hi Mr. Montgomery,
        Thank you for all the insightful responses. They have helped me out a lot! I live in Southern California, and I am a junior in high school right now. I have not taken my SAT yet, nor received my first semester report card grades. However, I am very concerned with whether I would have any chances of getting into a UC school. I have always struggled with math, and that is the subject where I ended up getting four Cs. This obviously tainted my high school transcripts, but I’m still hoping for some chances of getting into a UC school. A little bit of background on me: I volunteer at a hospital every week (and I’m the chairperson of my board), Im the president of 3 clubs at my school, I play in the school’s orchestra, I cheer, I’m a member of Girl Scouts, I publish articles about human rights for the school’s newspapers, and I won homecoming queen. I also suffer from ADD, and I had my childhood was abusive (I would write about this in my personal essay) I know colleges consider extracurricular activities when admitting students, so do I still have a chance despite my low grades. Thanks so much!

      2. S S says:

        I struggled as a freshman in high school and ended the year with a D in math, C in Bio and A’s and B’s in everything else. I’m now a sophomore and I’m worried about the standard of college I’ll attend. I just want to know If I have a chance at a UC of high-end CSU. I had a GPA of 2.98 last year.

        Thanks,
        S S

      3. Chris says:

        Hi. I am a freshman currently taking the following classes
        1.English I CP
        2.Honors Algebra
        3.Integrated Science CP(switched out of Bio H)
        4.Global Studies Honors

        I dropped out of Honors Bio because I felt it was too hard, but couldn’t get into Bio CP w/o switching all of my teachers, so i dropped down. My Grades for the first marking period are
        1. English-D
        2. H Algebra- C
        3.Int Sci.-B+
        4. Global Studies Honors- D
        I know these grades are bad believe me. I am used to seeing only A’s and B’s, so i am really concerned about my grades. In my school, there are 4 Marking Periods. And the only thing that goes on your transcript is your final grade for the year. I believe i can work harder this marking period, so what kind of grades should i get to at least bring up all of them to B+’s? And if i take Bio sophomore year, chem junior year, and physics senior, and do good in those, would i have a chance at a good science college?

      4. Mark Montgomery says:

        Chris,
        I think you should focus less on the long term and more on the short term: what are you doing to bring your grades up? Are you talking to your teachers? I know you are working “harder,” but are you working “smarter”? For example, do you turn off Facebook while you are at you computer? Do you get rid of the headphones (research suggests that humans cannot focus on intellectually challenging if you are listening to music, especially music with lyrics)? Do you turn off your phone and put it away while you are studying? Have you modified your study habits? Have you got a tutor, if you can get one, either at school or elsewhere?
        The fact is that colleges look at your grades. They want to see what you do to improve them. If you get stinky grades the first semester of high school, you have a chance to redeem yourself. But if you do not change your habits and approach, your redemption will not be a sure bet.
        I wish you the best as you begin to dig yourself out of this hole. I know you can do it…if you take stock of your situation and make the necessary changes to achieve your goals.
        Best,
        Mark

      5. Mark Montgomery says:

        Hi, SS.
        All depends on what you achieve from here on out. The better you do in sophomore year and beyond, the better your chances will be at your desired colleges. A 3.0 GPA is not fantastic, but it is not so low that you cannot claw your way out of the hold you have created for yourself in the next 4 semesters. Take stock of your study habits, change those that need changing, and keep your nose to the grindstone. Turn off your phone while studying. No music. No Facebook open while you study. Focus, and your grades will improve. And your long-term opportunities will also improve.
        Best,
        Mark

      6. Mark Montgomery says:

        Jeremiah,
        The answer is, of course, yes. If you did poorly and you have ambition, your only possibility is to demonstrate your abilities in the present and the future. You cannot wipe away the past. But work hard, demonstrate you are “college ready,” and get good grades from now on. Colleges are accustomed to seeing kids who start out weak but end high school very strong. And they are willing to admit such students who prove they are ready. So get to work, and prove to the world–and to yourself–that you are college material. Don’t cry over spilt milk, as they say. Start afresh.
        Best,
        Mark

      7. Jay Kim says:

        Hello, I have extremely bad grades right now. I have one A, One B, and 4 C’s. I am a junior currently. I’m trying to do my best to improve my grades. I want to attend MSU Michigan State University after senior. My question is if I do really well on my ACT and have bad GPA. Will I get accepted or do colleges want both to be good? My current ACT is 25 and I’m trying to improve more. I think I can get it up to at least 28 or 30.

      8. Luke says:

        I have two online certifications from Humber College(Canada)

        -75% in criminology
        -87% in forensic investigation.
        I am currently taking online high school credits(biology and chemistry). Will universities care for the online certifications I have attained as well?

      9. James Smith says:

        Hello Mark,
        During my first three years of high school I struggled greatly with depression. I achieved very poorly, earning a median GPA of 2.2 throughout these years. However, I overcame this hard time and have earned a 3.9 GPA during this first quarter of my Senior year. I earned this GPA while also taking the more difficult courses in my school. I’ve been nervous for some time now that colleges will hold my first three years against me. In my college essay I explained the struggles I went through with my family and how my depression negatively affected me. However, I also explained how I ended up getting through the animosity and coming out positively on the other side. Do I have a chance of still being accepted into a four year university? – James

      10. Turndownforwhat says:

        Thanks so much for this. It really helps

      11. Alexandria says:

        I’m a Junior in high school, and I have been struggling greatly with Algebra. I have a D- currently, and I feel like I am going to fail desperately. I’m freaking out because the college I want to go to has a GPA rating of around 3.3, and with these terrible grades, it’s going to go below a 3.0.

        The reason I’m freaking out is because I want to go into Journalism. I want to write for my future. I do not want to continue in a subject of Math. I want to become a writer, it’s been my dream since I was young. My grade is okay in English, but I know that I can bring it higher. My grade is a C. I really want to go to college so much.

        I don’t know why I’m failing Algebra 2. Numbers just don’t come that easy to me .All of my other grades are A’s. I want to try harder, but my teacher is not the easiest to get through either. She expects us to know this stuff because it’s “easy.” She doesn’t understand Algebra doesn’t flow through well with some people, including me.

        I want to go to college desperately, and I want to bring my GPA back up. I’m panicking because I know if I don’t get at least a C+, I’m going no where in life.

      12. john says:

        Dear sir,
        im a highschool senior and my grades in the past are horrible.Ive taken up alevels so the course is extremely hard and my as grades are 2c’s and 2d’s.
        I feel horrible because uptill tenth grade i was a great student and got 81% in icse ( inindia) Ive worked hard to make up for these grades and my 12th grades are much much better(2 a’s and 3b’s).Ive written the act around the same time i didbad and got 26.Is there a chance for me to get into a decentuniversity like texas am? i know im asking too much but is there a chance for me at all ? Im scared and i feel like shoving my self into a box and sending myself into some unknown jungle My parents are hardworking and im just a failure for slacking off……..

      13. Daniel says:

        Good afternoon Mr.Montgomery,
        Im not doing to hot in school. Not even the slightest. I have below a 3.0 GPA not because I am not intelligent, but because of bad habits and many obstacles thrown at me through my highschool years. I am an extremely good standarized test taker as well as a writer. My strong suits are in all subjects. I have an incredibly good memory both visually and auditory. I scored a 1750 on the Dukes TIPS (SATs give to 7th graders), scored top 98th percentile on my PSATs freshmen year, 87th percentile on PSATs sophomore year. Hoping I qualify for the National Merits this year. My only other hope is for me to do extremely well on my SATs and ACTs. I know what im capable of and I aspire to become a surgeon in life. But, in no wa,y shape, or form have I helped myself of these past high school years. What do you suggest? Recommend?

      14. Mark Montgomery says:

        Jay,
        There are few absolute rules in this business. But generally your GPA and transcript is the most important document in this process. It is the best indicator of your future success. The high ACT will help, so definitely go for it. But also do whatever you can to pull up those grades in the few remaining weeks of the semester.
        Best of luck to you!
        Mark

      15. Mark Montgomery says:

        Hello, Luke,
        Generally universities do want to know what certifications you are able to attain. So include them in your applications.
        Best,
        Mark

      16. Isabel Escobar says:

        I’m a high school junior and currently taking physics. If i fail physics with an F will that ruin my chances of getting into a 4 year college? Ex: CSULB

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