How to Explain a Bad Grade When Applying to College

When I was in high school, I got a D minus minus in Algebra II. My teacher’s explanation for this dubious gift was as follows: if Timmy, my older and always straight-A brother, could get a A in her class, then certainly I could too.

I applied to college with a D minus minus in Algebra II on my high school transcript



Certainly, there’s enough material in that story to propel any little sister into therapy; nonetheless, there I was applying to college with a D minus minus on my high school record. There was nothing I could do but suck it up; after all, I had no excuse but my own negligence.


Some bad grades (like mine…) can’t be excused. Sometimes students just slack off in a course. But some bad grades are the result of situations beyond a student’s control. If that’s happened to you, it’s worth providing an explanation of the grade to the admissions offices at the colleges to which you apply.


Illness and Surgery

If a poor grade was awarded while you were seriously ill, injured, or recovering from surgery, you should address this with admissions offices. For example, if you came down with mononucleosis during a school year and found it difficult to keep up your grades, you will want to notify the admissions offices of this.


Circumstances Beyond Your Control

If your living situation changed dramatically during a school year and you found it difficult to maintain your grades during that time, you want to address this with admissions offices. For example, if, due to a serious illness or death in your family, you were forced to assume new responsibilities and/or deal with significant emotional turmoil and found yourself unable to maintain your grades, you should notify the admissions offices. Likewise, if a significant financial change in your family required you to start working long hours after school (or to increase your after-school work hours), and this affected your grades, notify the admissions offices.


Personality Conflict with a Teacher

If you feel a poor grade is the result of a personality conflict with a difficult teacher, and if the teacher’s reputation is known to your guidance or college counselor, you might ask the counselor to think about addressing the grade in the letter of recommendation.


How to Address the Admissions Offices

Do not try to explain a bad grade in your Common Application or main college essay. That will only make you seem like a whiner. Do not call the admissions offices and offer a verbal explanation. Instead, use the area in the Common Application that offers you space to add information on “[a]nything else you want us to know.” That’s where you want to provide the context for poor grade(s) if the context is not going to be provided by a counselor.


Remember, if a poor grade results from negligence on your part, leave it be. Instead of excuses, use your application essay and the supplemental essays to show how you are far more than one bad grade. 


Looking for help with your college essays? Call me.

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author
Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.