Preparing for College

Explaining a Surgery-Related GPA Dip

Question: What constitutes a slip in grades worthy of an explanation? My son--a high school junior--had major surgery over spring break that resulted in great pain and an immobilized right hand (his writing hand) for six weeks. No accomodations were made at his highly competitive prep school. His unweighted GPA--usually a high A--has slipped one or two points. He wants to apply to some very competitive colleges. Does he need to account for the minor drop? How does he do so?

This is a bit of sticky issue because you do want to let college admission committees know that your son had an extra burden to bear this spring, but--on the other hand--he will be evaluated amidst a pool of other applicants who have battled leukemia, lived in homeless shelters, or survived the death of parents. In this era that has spawned what I call "The Jerry-Springerization-of-the-college-admission-essay," you don't want to play the personal-hardship trump card and have it come up short when compared to other contenders.

Thus, my advice is to ask your son's college counselor what he or she plans to do. The best route, in my opinion, is for the counselor to mention the malady but almost in passing. For instance, the counselor recommendation might say, "[Your son's name] has always been a top student with a can-do attitude that permeates everything he does here at [school name]. Even his surgery last spring, which caused him considerable pain and resulted in the loss of the use of his writing hand for an entire term, made only a small ripple in his excellent GPA, and we never once heard him complain."

Chances are, this is how the counselor expects to proceed. If you ask and find out differently, get back to us, and we'll aim for Plan B. (That's how to tell the counselor what to write. :-) )

We would not, in most circumstances, recommend that your son write an application essay on this problem, though that really depends on how good a writer he is (a great writer can pick virtually any topic and turn out a terrific essay) and also on the injury's Big Picture. For instance, if the surgery was precipitated because your son was building a fighter jet in the garage, pulling a baby from a burning building, or even working the fry-o-lator at Mickey D's, then it may be essay fodder indeed. Otherwise, your best bet is to let colleges get the scoop from the school.