Preparing for College

How Will Admission Committees View a Foreign Language Deficiency?

Question: I have a high GPA and good SAT scores but, because I transferred between two high schools and experienced schedule conflicts at both, I don't have any foreign language on my transcript. How will that affect my college admission decisions?

Colleges and universities with more competitive admission practices (as well as the majority of liberal arts colleges--selective or not) do generally expect some language study in high school. Keep in mind, however, that even at the pickiest places in the country, foreign language is not required, though it is usually “highly recommended.” Many schools suggest three years of a single language or two of two different ones. A few prefer four. Rarely, however, are these numbers imperatives—merely guidelines.

Because you have compiled a strong high school record and have good SAT scores, many colleges and universities will overlook your language deficiency. You should not use your lack of language study as a criterion in your search, but—once you begin to finalize a list of target schools—you should e-mail admission offices at each one and tell them (in somewhat more detail) what you have told us (i.e., that changing schools and schedule conflicts kept you out of language courses). Ask if this will automatically knock you out of the running. Chances are, it won’t, but it’s wise to find out as soon as possible, before you’ve spent time (and money!) on applications.

When you write each school, point out related achievements, where appropriate (e.g., “I lived with a family in Istanbul last summer and learned some Turkish:” “I study American Sign Language after school,” etc.). Likewise, you can cite other strengths that you hope will “make up for” this one lack, and don’t hesitate to be a bit cute (e.g., "I can’t yet speak Spanish or French but I make the best cherry pie in three counties and could probably win a Jane Austen trivia contest hands down.”).

Keep in mind, however, that while admission officials may be sympathetic to your problem to some extent, they have probably also encountered candidates who, like you, were unable to study language at school but took the initiative to seek out classes in the evening, over the summer, etc. The more selective the colleges on your list, the more likely it is that you will be “competing” with candidates who have gone that extra mile.

Keep in mind, too, that when an institution is a “reach” college in the first place, a candidate who has not pursued the suggested course of study may be at an added disadvantage. On the other hand, “realistic” or “likely” choices will be more apt to forgive deficiencies.