College Applications

Will This Hurt My College Application?


There’s a lot to worry about when it comes to applications. With most schools becoming increasingly selective, students are feeling the pressure to create the perfect application. Here are some common situations and tips on how to proceed.

Disclaimer: I am not a professional. All opinions are my own. For personalized information, seek out a professional.

My freshman grades are low, but I have improved a lot since then. Will those grades hurt my application?

For those with low freshman grades, you should be thrilled to know that some schools, such as Stanford and the University of California system, do not consider freshman grades at all. For students applying to other schools, your freshman grades are still considered. If your GPA is lower because of one year of bad grades, a school with holistic admissions is more likely to take that into consideration than a school that admits based on GPA and test scores alone. Freshman grades aren’t usually weighed as heavily as sophomore and junior year grades, but a school that only looks at GPA is less likely to see that upward trend.

When looking at a college, dig around on their admissions website to see what they consider in your application. Even better, Google the college’s name followed by “Common Data Set.” If the school publicly releases its common data set, it will tell you exactly what the school looks for in your application.

My grades dropped due to (insert situation). Will this hurt my application?

For students in this situation, you should be happy to find out that this is something many schools take into consideration, especially those with holistic admissions. However, be aware that some schools do not consider special circumstances at all. Typically, if the application does not have a space to explain your situation, that means the school will not consider it in admissions.

If your grades dropped due to extenuating circumstances, such as illness or the loss of a family member, you should notify the college. If you are applying through the Common App, there is a section under the Writing tab called Additional Information. Use this space to explain your situation and how it affected your grades. Also, notify your guidance counselor. To back up your situation, your counselor can include this information in his/her letter. If you are not using the Common Application, look to see if the school has an additional information section in their application. This is where you can explain your circumstances.

I have a high SAT/ACT but low GPA. How will this affect admissions?

This one is difficult to answer, especially because it depends on why your GPA is low. Did you challenge yourself by taking AP courses? Were there extenuating circumstances? Was it affected by low freshman/sophomore year grades? There are a lot of variables.

This can signal some warning signs in admissions officers if you have a 35 ACT with a 3.0 GPA. Unless you can explain your low GPA with extenuating circumstances, this situation is not looking good.

However, if you have a 1600 SAT with a 3.5 GPA and challenged yourself with AP, IB, or dual enrollment courses, the situation looks a lot better.

Check the school’s Common Data Set to see how much they consider GPA and SAT/ACT scores. Also check if they consider other factors, such as course rigor, that may have contributed to your low GPA. This situation is unique to each person, so it is difficult to create a one-size-fits-all answer.

I have a high GPA but a low SAT/ACT score. How will this affect my chances?

The good news is that you might be in a better spot than those in the opposite situation. But again, this depends on your specific circumstances.

Some schools understand that standardized tests do not always accurately reflect a student’s ability to excel in college. I mean, you do have to get up early on a Saturday and take a 3 hour (or more?) test in a school you may not even be familiar with. I’ve even heard admissions officers complain about this. Look at the school’s Common Data Set. How much do they consider standardized test scores? Some schools weigh it as much as your GPA while others do not.

If your GPA is high because you did not challenge yourself with advanced classes, then the admissions officer will be more likely to believe that the standardized test score reflects your ability. If your GPA is high due to lack of course rigor, then this can hurt your application.

Again, this is a situation where it truly depends on your circumstances. If you just can’t get that test score up, know that some colleges will consider that more than others.

I don’t have many ECs. Will this affect my application?

This depends largely on the school and the quality of the ECs you do have. Some schools don’t consider extracurriculars at all, while others heavily consider them. Check the school’s website or Common Data Set.

Also, think of the extracurriculars you do have. Working 20 hours a week to support your family is better than barely participating in National Honors Society. If your ECs are huge time commitments, then you’re fine. If you only spend about an hour every two weeks on each of your activities, then you’re probably not in the best shape.

Many students also have more extracurriculars than they think. If you spend a significant amount of time drawing or writing, that’s an EC. If you run a blog or YouTube channel, that’s an EC. If you made a website, that’s an EC. Even if you spend all your time looking after your siblings, colleges want to hear about it. If you really just lay on the couch and watch tv when you get home, then maybe you don’t have any ECs. But many of us have some that we forget to mention on our applications.

I don’t have any awards. How will this affect my application?

Truth is, not much. If you have time, see if there’s any local competition you can compete in (writing, photography, math, robotics, etc) that is related to your major or something you’re passionate about. Otherwise, you’re not really going to be dinged for not having awards or honors. Most students just put down Honor Roll and move on to the next section.

Awards are difficult to come by. If everyone had them, they wouldn’t be special. You will not be hurt by not having awards, but you will benefit from having them.

My school does not offer advanced courses. Will this hurt my application?

No, it won’t. If your school does not offer advanced courses, you will not be penalized for that. You have no control on what is offered to you. Your application will only be hurt if your school offers advanced courses, but you did not take advantage of them.

I’m applying for financial aid. Will this hurt my application?

It might. Check out if the school is need-aware or need-blind. If the school is need-aware, then your family’s ability to pay is considered in admissions. Applying for financial aid will only hurt your application if the school is need-aware.

If you are an international student who is applying for financial aid, be aware that only a handful of schools are need-blind for international students. If you are international and applying for financial aid, I recommend finding a safety school that offers large (preferably automatic) merit scholarships based on your test scores and GPA.

I made a mistake on my application. Will this affect my chances?

Probably not. If it’s just a small typo, then you’re fine. If you accidentally put incorrect information on your application, send the admissions office or your regional admissions counselor an email correcting the mistake. Typically, it’s not a big deal.

A major error, on the other hand, would be putting another school’s name on your essay. If a school asks why you want to attend, don’t copy and paste an essay you wrote for another school. And even if you do, change the name! This can actually get you auto-rejected from a school. Double (or triple) check your application!

I submitted my application late. Will this affect me in admissions?

It might. Your first course of action should be to contact the admissions office and ask if they will consider the late application. If the application was sent two minutes late, you will probably have more leeway than if the application was sent two days later. Each school has its own policies on accepting late applications.

My transcript/recommendations were submitted after the deadline. Will my application be considered?

Some schools have a supporting materials deadline that is after the actual application deadline. Colleges know that you have little control over when others submit their materials (but keep reminding them!). Again, contact the school to see if your application will be considered.

I did not visit the school. Will this hurt my application?

It depends on the school. Check out the school’s website or Common Data Set to see if the school considers demonstrated interest. If it does, don’t freak out just yet. Some schools offer optional interviews which can show your interest in the school. If you’re in an area where interviews are not offered, ask the admissions office if you can do a phone or Skype interview. Even if it’s not available, this shows that you are interested in the school. Also, contact the admissions office with any questions you may have (that are not easily answered on the school’s website). Reaching out can show interest in the school. And, consider applying early decision if it’s your top school. Although colleges understand that not everyone can apply early decision, especially for financial reasons, applying ED will show that you’re interested in the school.

I did not do an optional interview. Will this hurt my application?

Remember: optional interviews are optional. Although not doing one will not hurt you, doing one will benefit you. Interviews are another way to show your personality and how you are a good fit for the school. If you can do an interview, I recommend doing it. However, it will not hurt your application.

I did not submit an optional resume. How will this affect my application?

The only reason that you should submit a resume along with your activities list (on the Common App) is because you had several meaningful activities that didn’t make the initial cut. That situation is unlikely.

Don’t submit an optional resume if it’s just going to repeat what’s in your application. Unless it adds something to your application, don’t submit it. So if you didn’t submit the optional resume, you’re probably in good shape.


Each student has his/her own unique situation. Some general tips are to check out the school’s Common Data Set, dig through the admissions website, or contact admissions. All of these can give you tons of information and may answer some of your questions.

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