The axiom that ‘no one’s perfect’ holds as true for college students as it does for anyone else. Even serious, dedicated, hard-working students sometimes graduate with a transcript that includes one or two poor or even failing grades. Those grades can later become a major source of anxiety for students who decide to apply to graduate schools. What should you do if you’re a grad school applicant with one of those less-than-perfect college records?

Senior Consultant Heather MacNeill says that it’s often best to do nothing. “In most cases, I discourage applicants from taking time and space in their application to talk about low grades,” she says. “It is often hard to come across to the admissions committee without sounding like you’re trying to make excuses. That said, it can be done. Some schools even provide ‘optional essays’ or additional space on the application itself where you can add extra information.”

Whether or not an applicant would benefit by using that application space to explain the circumstances behind a poor grade depends on how relevant the course in question is to the program you’re applying to. For example, if you’re applying to biomedical programs and the poor grade you received was for a foreign language, the admissions committees may not care that much. But if the poor grade was for a biology or chemistry course and is not offset by other evidence that you know the subject matter and can handle the coursework, you may do yourself more harm than good by not anticipating and responding to the doubts committee members may have about your scientific aptitude.

If you do choose to provide an explanation for a poor grade, Heather recommends keeping your answer focused on your present abilities and future goals. “As long as you show the admissions committee that you learned from the experience and came away with some valuable tools to prevent poor grades in the future, then explaining the grades can work in your favor,” says Heather.

– Contributed by Senior Consultant Heather MacNeill, former Assistant Director of Graduate Admission at Pacific University.

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