How to Get into College with a Low GPA

If you’re looking up how to get into college with a low GPA, you’re already ahead of the pack — and you’re committed to a challenging goal. Of course your high school GPA is important, but it’s not the whole story. In the best case scenario, your GPA reflects consistent success due to hard work during your high school career. But what happens when you can’t apply to college under these ideal conditions and have to apply with a low or lower-than-average GPA? It turns out, there’s lots you can do to get into college with a low GPA.

1. Offset a lower GPA with a stellar SAT or ACT score.

By the time you’re applying to college, most of your high school years are behind you. This means that there isn’t much you can do to impact your GPA in a huge way in your senior year. Your SAT or ACT score, on the other hand, is completely in your control and you can greatly impact your score with just a few months of studying. Although colleges will look at your application holistically, meaning that they’ll look at you as a whole “package,” the only two quantitative measures colleges have to rely on are your GPA and SAT or ACT score. If your GPA is on the lower end, make sure your test score is on the very high end of the curve. This will show admissions officers that you have the critical thinking skills to succeed in college-level classes. Best of all, unlike your GPA at this point, you can have multiple opportunities to perfect your test score before you submit your application.

2. Bolster your numbers with other tests.

In addition to getting the best score you can on your SAT or ACT, you can show college admissions committees that you have a strong grasp of academic subjects by taking AP or SAT II exams in the subjects you struggled in. Your grades could have been affected by a number of factors, but if you’re were committed to remediating those subjects, show that off with a solid AP score (which could also earn you college credit) or SAT subject test score. Beyond proving that you’ve addressed your weakness from class, this shows that you can overcome setbacks.

3. Explain, but don’t make excuses or assumptions.

Admissions officers are going to see your grades and overall GPA, so you might as well address a low GPA head-on. Remember that admissions officers understand that high school students don’t all follow the same path to college and they understand that things can happen in your life that will affect your school performance. Whatever the reason, address it in your application in plain, honest terms, and most importantly, show what you’ve learned from the situation. Maybe you weren’t ready to take on tougher classes in freshman year, or you had to take a part-time job to help support your family, or you dealt with an illness or a death in the family. Show your learning and your resilience and how you got better. It’s equally important to not make excuses or blame others — your English teacher probably didn’t hate you — and to take responsibility for what you could have done. Lastly, try to avoid the “if it weren’t for this one thing, I surely would have gotten an A in the class.” You don’t know that. If it’s your freshman and sophomore grades that affect your GPA the most, showing an upward trend can help; settling in to high school demands can take some time, but if you turned it around come junior and senior year, that’s a trend that’s more likely to continue.

4. You’re so much more than your GPA.

Your grades and your SAT or ACT score tell a small part of your story and they certainly don’t tell who you are as a person or even who you could be as a college student. While you should continue to do your best in your academics, show off everything else you’ve done during your high school career. Did you keep a regular volunteer shift, start a student club that made a difference in your school, or juggle other duties like athletics, work, or all of the above? Showing that you also have leadership skills, the ability to manage your time, or the maturity to manage a workload in addition to school can show admissions officers that you’re ready to take on college. Your teachers, guidance counselor, and people you’ve worked or volunteered with may also be able to write letters or recommendation for you that speak to these “soft” skills.

5. Check out alternative paths to college.

There are limitless paths to college, so even if you have to take a detour or two, stay focused on your goals. Some colleges that you apply to might have programs for conditional admission, where you’ll take some remedial courses and participate in college-readiness programming. These programs are designed to make sure that once you’re in college, you’re set up for success. You can also look at starting out in community college. You can ease into the rigors of college-level academics and be around advisors and professors who know how to help. Community college will allow you to build a good GPA history and show you’re ready to take on tough classes plus you can save on those tuition costs. After two years, you can transfer to and graduate from a four-year school, just make sure you’re on top of credit transfers.

Want to start working on your SAT or ACT score right now? Check out our mini-quiz.