By Ben Feuer, photo by Wonderferret

Hey there, dummy!

Just kidding! As everybody knows, grades and intelligence don't necessarily correlate. That said, if your current goal is to attend a good four-year college, then the whole ‘grades’ thing?  Yeah. It’s gonna factor in.

Fortunately, we've been helping academic ne’er-do-wells right their ships since 1995. There are no magic wands to wave here, and no quick fixes. However, if you’re willing to put in the work, you can definitely find yourself standing on your dream campus in a year or so.

This guide is designed for students who want to go directly into competitive four year schools out of high school. However, there are a number of other options for you to consider as well, including —

• Entering a trade school or joining a professional union
• Taking a gap year
• Enrolling in a two year private or community college with the intention of transferring
• Attending a school with relatively low selectivity, such as a relatively obscure liberal arts college or a non-flagship state school
• Being LeBron James

Each of these options is going to be right for some of you and wrong for others. You (possibly with some professional guidance) are going to have to figure out what works best.

PERFORM A SELF ASSESSMENT


The first step you have to take in any college application is performing a realistic self-assessment. In other words, who the heck are you? And I don’t mean your name, rank or serial number, I mean how should you be seen in comparison to other students like you? What makes you stand out? What have you been up to on the planet that is revolutionary and game changing?

What are your strengths?  Your razor-sharp wit?  Your faith?  Your encyclopedic awareness of The Big Bang Theory?  Overcoming tough obstacles in your personal background to get where you are today?  Are you a savant, brilliant at a few things and terrible at everything else?  Are you a reformed mega-jock now looking to score an academic touchdown?

Now look at your weaknesses. Where did you get your worst grades, and why? Details matter. If you struggled in advanced-level courses, that’s a very different matter from struggling in remedial Algebra. This is the kind of information you’ll address in your so-called supplemental essay, which usually goes in the additional information field, or is uploaded as a separate file.

Get tested for any potential disorders, such as learning disabilities and autism spectrum. This kind of hard evidence can help explain to schools why you struggled so mightily.

BUILD A TARGET SCHOOL LIST

Be smart and realistic about this. Apply to a wide range of colleges — eight’s a good rule of thumb.  Seek out a range of possible partners, from reach schools to safeties. Choose places that you think might respond to your story and your candidacy. Are they a good match in subject matter, goals, faith, ethnicity, geography?  Would they have some reason to value you more highly than other schools?  What about satellite campuses of schools you like, or schools that offer exchanges with schools you like?

Whenever possible, build relationships with professors and administrators. Especially at small schools, this can sometimes make a big difference with borderline candidates.

PROVIDE ALTERNATE EVIDENCE

Believe me, colleges find your transcripts even more boring than you do. The average admissions officer considers a transcript for 30 seconds. 30 seconds. That’s barely the length of a Budweiser spot.

So no one is going over your history with a fine toothed comb. They’re looking for standout highs and lows (A+’s and Ds) and considering where, when and how they were earned. Then they’re making a snap judgement. Can he compete academically with everybody else at my school, or will he be overwhelmed and drop out?

If you have a weak GPA, you need to show that you can stand on an equal academic footing, or at least come close. How? Here are some of the best ways.

• High test scores — ACT, SAT, AP
• Summer school — A’s from quality colleges
• Testing for professional programs, or admission to other selective academic programs

BACK UP YOUR STORY

So hopefully, by now, you know what kind of candidate you are, where your strengths lie and how you’d like to be seen. The trickiest part is finding an elegant way to present this information, showing rather than telling the school who you are.

People judge you by your results and your actions, as well as by the opinions of others they trust. That’s why schools weigh extracurricular activities so heavily. If you’re a subpar student, then you’d better have some really impressive results to draw on from outside the classroom. That doesn’t mean you need to have acted on Broadway or founded a startup. It can simply mean that you grew your chess club from four members to fifteen, or created a template for delivering the school’s morning announcements that is still in use today.

Choose and use your recommenders strategically. Of course, you want people who are very familiar with your work and your personality, but you also want people who are naturally sympathetic to an underdog story. The type of recommender who will fight harder for you because you overcame adversity others didn’t have to face.

ODDS AND ENDS

There is at least one other very important factor to consider — money. Many schools are willing to take on subpar students, as long as they’re prepared to pay full freight.  That’s a lot of cash, so think carefully before reaching for that top tier school. Be sure that you’re going to get good value for your dollar.

Academic reachers should always apply regular decision rather than early decision. That way, you’ll be faced with a talent pool that more closely resembles you.

Have questions? Of course you do. Fortunately, we’re just an email or a call away!