Transferring Colleges: Three Ways to Overcome a Weak High School GPA

Applying to Transfer: Overcome a Weak High School GPA

The question: How can I overcome a weak high school GPA if I want to transfer to a school with high academic standards?

My high school transcript was pretty weak for the school that I was shooting to transfer to. I got Cs in two math courses, and Bs in a host of others (even in courses that I considered myself good at, like English). Further, I got a 1 on my French AP exam (which is what you would get if you just wrote your name on the test and did nothing else), and low scores in the other AP tests I took (2s and 3s mostly). How could I get around my weak high school performance to transfer to Dartmouth?  And this is a school where 45% of accepted freshmen this year were the valedictorians of their high school classes (see here).

There are really just three ways to overcome weak high school performance:

(1) Make sure your grades are better overall
(2) Focus on what you are really good at
(3) Confront your weakness head on

(1) Make sure your grades are better overall

First, I made sure my grades at my current college were beyond reproach. I only got one B (and it was a B+!) at my first college, which I’ll discuss below in a second. I also stayed at my first college two years before applying to transfer out (applying in the fall of my second year of my college career), to provide myself with a longer period to prove myself and establish a solid record of improvement.

Your grades should show a consistently improving trend. If, for example, you were a B student in high school, and that prevented you from getting into the college you really wanted to go to the first time around, you want to show that you’re pulling off consistent As at whatever college you’re at. It will prove that you’re more than ready for your first choice school.

Take a look at the average high school GPAs for accepted students at each school you’re interested in transferring to (the school admissions websites will have the info), and make sure you’re well within or above that range.

Besides getting better grades all around, there are just two further strategies you can pursue to overcome a weak high school transcript: (2) focusing on your passions and doing really well at those, and/or (3) confronting your weakness(es) head on. I did a little bit of both when transferring myself, so I’ll talk about what I did on each side.

(2) Focus on what you are really good at

I knew that (at the time, anyway) I was interested in classical history (the Greeks and the Romans), so I made sure I was really good at any courses I took in that subject. I also demonstrated my interest outside the classroom in several ways.

First, I saw a flier one day for a scholarship that would pay for an undergraduate to go on a classical archaeological dig (which besides being right in my area of interest, just sounded really cool too), and so I applied and, luckily, got the scholarship (more on applying for scholarships in the future). Second, I also participated in a one-on-one research project with a professor (which really helped him write a strong letter of recommendation for me later on, since we knew each other so well by the end of the project). Finally, I also took a summer school course in classics after my first year (that I got an A+ in).

If your high school GPA was dragged down by the fact that you’re just not good at certain subjects, then one way to improve your GPA would be to simply not take those courses at your current college and instead focus on what you’re really passionate in.

History is full of examples of tremendously accomplished people that were very bad at certain things. We just don’t hear about how, for example, Richard Feynman was horrible at English and philosophy because, frankly, who cares given that he won the Nobel Prize in physics and accomplished so many other things?

In fact, one could argue that, in many cases, the intense focus these people applied on the one or two things they really cared about—to the exclusion of so much else—is what made them so great in the first place.

If you’re interested in transferring, you should have a better sense of what you’re interested in than a high school applicant would, since you’re (likely) at least a little older, and you’ve (definitely) had the chance to take college level courses.

Take more courses in the major you’re leaning toward and really excel in them. You should also get involved in activities that reflect your academic interest. Do research with a professor. Even if you may not be good at other subjects, you can still blow the admissions officers away at the topics you are good at.

(3) Confront your weakness head on

So I mentioned at the beginning that I got a 1 on the AP French exam. Other weak subjects aside, that one really bugged me, since I wanted to be good at a second language and the 1 was really embarrassing to me since, again, it’s what anyone could get on the test by just writing their name.

So I sucked it up and took Intermediate French at my college. Not even low-level French, but the hardest level of French I could hope to take and not completely fail. I mustered up all  the study skills I could, using flash cards and whatever other tools I found that would get the information into my head, and I worked like a demon that whole quarter.

…and I got a B+. Not exactly the A that I was hoping for and that would demonstrate really extreme improvement, but not bad nonetheless. In my application essay I pointed out the 1 I got on my French AP exam (instead of just ignoring it, leaving the admissions office to wonder what happened there), explained to them why I did so poorly on the test the first time around, and showed them how I took the course at a high level in college and pushed myself to do pretty well in an area I was otherwise weak at.

If you want to be really impressive (which you’ll have to be if you want to stand out to a super-competitive school), you can directly confront any areas of particular weakness on your high school transcript at the college you’re currently at. For example, if you got a bad grade in a high school math class, take a college math course or one that uses a lot of math and absolutely crush that course. Then you can highlight how although you had troubles with math that hurt your high GPA when you were applying to colleges as a freshman, you’ve directly overcome that weakness. This is obviously a hard thing to do since you’re trying to succeed where you once slipped up, but there’s no more direct and indisputable way to show that you’re a stronger applicant, and a stronger person.

Now what if you take that course in college and unfortunately don’t do well in it yet again? First of all, do everything you can in your power to avoid messing up in the class. If transferring to a particular, hard-to-get-into school is important to you, and if your desire to improve in this area of weakness is genuine and strong enough, we think there’s no way you won’t work hard enough to improve.

But maybe something horrible happens on the day of exam—there are always things that are out of our control—and you still don’t do well in that course. Explain in your application what went wrong, and still stress the point that you were willing to take on a subject or course that you didn’t do well in in high school knowing full well how it would look on your transfer application if you missed your goal. Your willingness to challenge yourself so directly is still incredibly impressive.

So to summarize, this is how you overcome a weak high school GPA:

(1) Make sure your grades are better overall at your first college than they were in high school
(2) Really excel at the areas you are good at/interested in
(3) If you want to really blow them away, do your best to overcome particularly weak areas

If you found this useful, please comment and/or pass this on! Thanks!

(Photo: m00by)