Applying to colleges can be a stressful and competitive process. According to UC Berkeley’s website, more than 80,000 students applied for the 2020 freshman class. Only 14,608 of those students were admitted.

With the number of students applying to colleges on the rise each year, it can be hard to set yourself apart as an applicant, especially if you have a lower GPA or test scores. Don’t be discouraged! While your academic stats are very important to colleges, they are also not where your application begins and ends. You may have to consider different options and application strategies than you expected, and that’s okay. Taking the time to assess your strengths and personal circumstances will strengthen your college applications regardless of your test scores.

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Before I continue, I want to note that a number of universities are considering phasing out a test score requirement in light of COVID-19. The University of California Board just voted to either eliminate or replace the SAT and ACT in five years. I’m sure this is just the beginning of many significant changes to the college application process—and the college experience in general. There are still a lot of unknowns, so make sure to stay up-to-date on school or statewide decisions.

COVID-changes aside, understanding how to supplement your application’s “weaknesses” will always help you be a competitive applicant.

This informational essay was written by Angela Gao, UC Berkeley ‘19. If you want to get help writing your UC application essays from Angela or other Admissions Experts, register with today.

1) Show your growth over time.

College-level academics can be vigorous. They often require an adjustment in the ways you typically study and learn. Regardless of your grades and test scores, this is something to prepare for and take seriously. If your transcript demonstrates that you challenge yourself academically, that will reflect well on you even with lower stats. Admissions officers especially like to see growth and academic improvement over time.

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If you’re not already a senior in high school, this is great news. Focus on improving your grades or maintaining an upward trajectory. Challenge yourself (within reason!) by taking AB/IB level classes or courses at your local community college—as long as you’re still committed to getting decent grades. Showing growth and development over time is one of the best things you can do for your college application as a high school student.

If you are currently in the process of applying to college, there are many other ways you can remediate a below-average GPA or test scores. You might also want to consider exploring other options, like transferring from a safety school or community college. These strategies can help you establish a positive academic narrative in your application, despite your stats or test scores.

2) Let your admission officers know about any extenuating circumstances.

Do you come from a household where you have to take care of younger siblings? Did you work outside of school to support your family? Did a very serious personal situation during a semester impact your grades? Applications generally provide a place where you can note serious extenuating circumstances, like the “Additional Information” section in the Common App.

Note that this section is meant for very serious circumstances—the kind of event that would impede your academic and extracurricular performance beyond your control. While there’s no definitive list on what to include, typical responses reference a disability or illness, a financial struggle, a family problem, or an abrupt change in personal circumstances. This is not just a place to justify your grades. Think of it as an opportunity to demonstrate your work ethic and personal strength. How did you make the best of your difficult situation? How did you make efforts to improve? How did it motivate you?

If you have experienced serious and significant difficulties at any point, I strongly recommend that you speak to your guidance counselor about including these circumstances in their letter of recommendation. This will substantiate your claims and speak to your perseverance from a trusted adult’s perspective.

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3) Be strategic when choosing where to apply.

Most students apply to around 2-3 safety schools, 2-3 match schools, and 2-3 reach schools. It’s very easy to find the average GPA or test scores of admitted students, which you can use to help weigh whether a school is a safety, match, or reach. Still, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, especially if you’re only a few points off—remember that an average conceals the higher and lower scores.

You may also find that less is more when it comes to your applications. With lower scores there’s very little point in throwing applications at as many schools as you can. Although this may seem obvious, believe me, it’s worth reiterating: the significant time and effort you put into your applications should be spent wisely. For example, it’s not probably worth your time to apply to a safety school if you can’t imagine yourself going there. It’s also probably not worth it to apply to a school primarily because of its prestige.

Think carefully about where you decide to apply. And if you have a sincere interest in a school that doesn’t match your scores, don’t write it off!

4) Strengthen the other parts of your application.

This goes without being said: use your extracurriculars to demonstrate what kind of well-rounded applicant you are. “Holistic” admissions has been the trend for some time now, so seize the opportunity to create a positive academic narrative in your application. Highlighting your particularly impactful or successful extracurriculars can demonstrate your character, drive, and personal motivations in a way that test scores simply don’t.

If letters of recommendation are required for your application, take extra care when you select your writers. Whoever you choose should to be able to make a strong case for your ability to succeed at the university level. Again, if you have any extenuating circumstances, this is an ideal opportunity for a guidance counselor or other trusted adult to explain and substantiate them.

5) Take time off in a productive way.

Taking a gap year or semester can be a good way to strengthen your application. If you do it right, it also can help you clarify your own motivations and goals for college and beyond. The most important thing is to demonstrate how you’re continuing to challenge yourself and develop your character outside of school. This may mean taking on an internship or job, volunteering abroad, shadowing someone in a profession that interests you, or working on a community initiative.

Not every student has the resources to take a gap year, and colleges certainly don’t expect it. There is also a lot of misconception about gap years that might make your parents reluctant to support this decision. If you have the means to do so and are committed to making a concrete plan, consider a gap year to both strengthen your application and benefit you in the long run.

6) Consider attending community college first.

Regardless of your high school stats, there are many excellent reasons to attend community college. Transferring from a CC to a four-year university can drastically lower your tuition costs, help prepare you for university-level academics, and give you the opportunity to explore different academic and pre-professional tracks.

If your stats are below-average for your favorite school, attending a CC first can also increase your chances of getting in. Getting strong grades and taking a full course load will help your application significantly. Again, looking at UC Berkeley’s data, the admittance rate for transfer students in 2019 was 25.3 % compared to a 16.8% admittance rate for freshmen.

While you might not get the “college experience” that a four-year student might have, remember that community college can provide its own unique and wide-ranging experiences. If you’re set on a specific school or concerned about the cost of a four-year university, attending a CC first is definitely something to consider. In my time at UC Berkeley, some of the most motivated and driven students I met were CC transfers. They often entered college with a fully developed idea of who they were and what they wanted to achieve.

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On a more personal note: when I applied to college, I had a very set vision for what I thought would give me the best experience. I wanted to attend a small liberal arts college, but I didn’t get into any of my preferred schools. I decided on UC Berkeley, which is notably different from the schools I was planning on attending. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing school, just not my personal first choice when I was applying!)

The people I’ve met at UC Berkeley have encouraged me to make the college experience my own and see my situation more clearly. I was so focused on getting into specific schools that I neglected to account for my goals and ambitions beyond college. So while you might not get into your dream schools, stay motivated! Ultimately, it’s up to you to build an amazing college experience.

This informational essay was written by Angela Gao, UC Berkeley ‘19. If you want to get help writing your UC application essays from Angela or other Admissions Experts, register with today.