Low Grades and Suspensions Make Me Feel Hopeless About College Acceptance

Question: I am a high school junior and so far my grades aren't the best (mostly B's and C's but I also got 2 D's). I've also had two suspensions for academic dishonesty issues (copying work from the Internet). I've taken some challenging classes and that's put extra pressure on me. I know that I've messed up and that it's all my fault. I really want to try to do better but now I'm feeling hopeless and lost due to my own mistakes and I'm worried that I won't be able to get into any college. So I want to know if college is even an option for me at all. 

Unlike in many other countries, the United States has college options for almost every student who wants to enroll. So although poor grades and disciplinary actions are going to keep you out of some colleges, there are others that will welcome you ... especially if you keep your record clean between now and when you graduate.

“The Dean” is a great believer in what I’ve dubbed, “The Look Around the Room Theory.” Here’s how it works: Any time you find yourself in a room where you’re surrounded by adults whom you consider to be happy and successful ( by whatever standards you wish to apply), ask them where they went to college. And, unless you’re attending a Harvard reunion, chances are good that the answers are going to be all over the map ... from prestigious universities to tiny, obscure liberal arts colleges or tech schools. (And some of the folks will tell you that they didn’t attend college at all.)

It sounds like you hail from an environment where there may be pressure to take the toughest classes and get into the “right” colleges. But if you were to step away from the world you live in and look down on it from a distant planet, you might be able to realize that the experiences you’re having now (and the failures that you fear define you) are really just tiny specks in what could be a long, productive, and fulfilling life.

As you continue through high school, try to think hard about what you really like to do ... and what you might enjoy studying later on. Most high school students take the same core classes ... English, math, sciences, history, foreign language. And while some students enjoy this traditional curriculum, others can’t wait until they can study Fire Science or Dance Therapy or Sports Administration.  Granted, most colleges have some sort of core curriculum that can sound a lot like a high school course roster, and future fire fighters may have to get through chemistry while dance therapists take bio and sports managers take math. So if those are classes you struggled with (or snored through) in high school, you can’t count on never having to deal with them again. But, on the other hand, if you choose your college wisely, you can head for a place where the majority of the classes you elect will match your interests and abilities better than your high school classes might now. And here’s a little-known fact ... the more selective a college is, the more predictable (and boring!) the list of majors is likely to be for many teenagers. It's often at the less competitive colleges that you can pursue "Equine Studies" and "Entertainment Media" or "Resort and Casino Management" while your pals at Princeton are studying the old stand-bys like English, Physics, and Art History.

In the semesters ahead, your focus needs to be on avoiding further incidences of academic dishonesty ... even petty ones.  If you feel too pressured in the classes you’re taking, talk to your guidance counselor about switching to a lower level—or to a different class entirely.  Also talk to your guidance counselor about colleges that will accept you with your current record. You may be pleasantly surprised by how broad and interesting your options are. And if your counselor doesn’t help, write back and I’ll send you to someone who will. Although you’ve made some poor choices, you’ve also made one very good one by acknowledging your responsibility for your mistakes. When it comes time to submit your applications, you can explain the disciplinary actions you faced, what you learned from them,  and how you're ready to move on. And I promise that many colleges will give you the opportunity to prove it.