Explaining Blemishes On A College Application


application secrets

From time to time, we hear from parents whose students have a mar on their high school transcripts and want to know how to address it on their college applications. 


 it could be anything like a low grade in a certain class they were pushed to take, the scourge of Organic Chemistry, a rough semester, a year-long case of senioritis, or maybe even a brush with school administration.


All of these situations will call for different responses from applicants, but there is one universal, ultra-major DON’T when it comes to explaining this black mark on your application: Don’t Blame Somebody Else!


This is not your child’s opportunity to unload on anyone they feel may have slighted them or treated them unfairly.


“The teacher really had it out for me! I’m innocent.”


“No one did well in the class!  It was so ridiculous.”  


“The teacher didn’t know what he was talking about.”   


And so on.


You get the picture — we all know excuses when we see them. 


Colleges and universities do too and they will not be won over by someone who will pass the buck and refuse to take accountability.


And, even when it’s true (it’s hard to do well in a class if the teacher really does bore you to tears), colleges have no way of knowing what it was really like in that classroom, so you’re more likely to look like you’re shirking responsibility than anything else.


Not fair, I know!


Blame it on the world (but not in the college essay). 


So then, what to do if your student has a trouble zone in their application?


Hoping the reader will sneeze when they are looking at that line in your transcript won’t work.


And neither will praying for an apocalypse to wipe out the records department at your high school.  


The most prudent thing to do is to deal with it head on.



What to Write About a Hiccup on Your Application

Here’s a scenario: Let’s say your student failed a class. 


One way to deal with this is to answer that mysterious question on the application that will say something along the lines of “Is there anything else that you would like the committee to know about you?”


Your student doesn’t need to go into all the perhaps gory or sad details of what caused all the trouble, all he/she needs to do is to craft something like this:


During my senior year, as the admissions committee will have noticed, my grades took a plunge for a semester, which I would like to explain here.  During this time, ___________________ (insert event) and I found myself unable to manage my course load in the same way that I had in the past.  Looking back on this time, I wish that I had ______________(elected to drop this course, seek extra help, etc), but at the time, I thought I could handle the challenges on my own.  While I am not glad that this happened, I can say that I have learned ____________ from it and that I believe it will make me a better student in the end. 




The above won’t erase any particular mar on the application, but it will likely go far in allowing the committee to see your student as a mature, reasonable, and responsible person.


This approach will be applauded because it identifies a problem, takes responsibility, imagines a better solution, and stresses a positive takeaway message in the form of a lesson learned. 


So, look let your student look their application demons straight in their warty little faces and tell them they’re going public.


You’ll be glad you did.


Here are some articles that offer general essay-writing advice:

[Tips For Writing a Great Common App Essay]


[Common College Essay Mistakes to Avoid]


[College Essay Examples That Worked and Why]












Jamie Oldham is a college admissions coach for Just Start Applications.

  1. Excellent advice here, Jamie. You’re right, colleges don’t want to hear why it’s someone else’s fault that your student had a bad grade or semester. They do want to see that your child is mature and has thought about how they will improve their academic performance in the future, particularly in college.

  2. […] earning—such as a difficult family situation or a personal health problem—that reason should be explained in a required application essay (when the topic is appropriate) or in an optional supplementary […]

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