Damage Control for Junior Downturn Due to Extracurricular Overload

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Question: I'll admit that I haven't been the best student starting the second semester of junior year. I got a girlfriend, led an after-school program (I am president and have been re-elected for president for next year) and worked on an app to help students navigate the college admissions process. I attend church every Tuesday and Thursday from 7 to 10 pm. And as a result of my distraction and trying to manage all of the extracurricular activities, my grades slipped. Is there *anything* I can do to prove that my time junior year was spent productively (coding an app, leading programs, etc.) or to show that I learned my lesson and that I would become more focused senior year? Anything helps -- thank you so much.

“The Dean" (the one answering this question who has never been an actual dean of anything) is a big fan of extracurricular involvement. I realize that the endeavors teenagers pursue outside the classroom can offer benefits that endure long after the lessons of algebra and AP Latin have been forgotten. But real deans — the ones who will be reading your college applications — may be less forgiving when it comes to your sagging GPA.

Regardless of where you are aiming (from colleges that welcome most of their applicants to those with single-digit acceptance rates), you are likely to have many “competitor candidates" whose resumes include a head-spinning, leadership-laden array of extracurricular commitments and yet whose grades have been consistently top-notch. So any plea on your part to admission officials to overlook your junior slump won't sound terribly compelling, in light of what else is out there.

But here's what you CAN do:

1. Use the “Additional Information" section of your applications to explain your academic downturn this spring. But the gist of your message shouldn't be, “Please ignore these recent grades because I was doing more interesting, important things." Instead, you should say that you have learned a lot about time management after taking on more extracurricular responsibilities than you could handle. Point out that you are now prepared to find a healthier balance between your in-school and out-of-school obligations — one that will serve you well as a high school senior and, especially, as you begin your college life down the road. This won't score you an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card, but at least will provide some perspective on your declining grades.

2. Give credibility to these comments by starting your first senior semester with a bang. If you are considering an “Early Decision" college, check to see if this school offers an ED II round with a January deadline. If so, consider waiting and applying during ED II so admission officials will see a full semester of improved grades on your transcript rather than just one quarter's worth. Early Action may not be a wise route for you either, in spite of the interest that it can signal to admission committees.

You don't provide any information in your question about how far your GPA has plummeted (from 3.9 to 3.7 or from 3.7 to 2.7? ... or 1.7?) This of course, could play a key role in your admission verdicts. You also don't say whether you aspire to the most hyper-competitive colleges or to those with more reasonable acceptance stats. Colleges in the latter group are likely to allot some amnesty to a junior-year dip in GPA followed by a twelfth-grade rebound, while the places where acceptance odds are steep for everyone allow little wiggle room for transcript blemishes.

So while you can't completely explain away your second-semester decline, you can certainly take some measures to mitigate it. And for your final Hail Mary play, direct the college folks to your admissions app. If they find that it is indeed a helpful tool for other students as they navigate the application process, it might even help your own application process, too.


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