How Can I Make Up for Lower Grades in Online Courses?

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I have a question about my academic performance. My school has decided to adopt a virtual testing format to offer us exams. It turned out I don't do well with virtual exams, but in my opinion, my school didn't carry out virtual classes effectively. I encountered numerous technical issues throughout the past few months and it affected my learning progress. I understand that I shouldn't find excuses for bad grades, but how do I explain this extenuating circumstance in my application? Also, what should I do next to compensate for the bad grades? For example, will good SAT and SAT Subject Tests cancel out the negative impact of bad grades? I'm going to apply to the Ivies and top liberal arts schools. My GPA was fairly good (I got A's and B+'s) before the virtual learning, but I have a couple of C's from the online semester.

"The Dean" feels your pain. I'd have hated to spend even a single week of my high school career taking classes online with no friend nearby to pass me a note and not even a teacher to glower while I passed it back! I can certainly understand how the grades earned in an unfamiliar virtual universe — where tech snafus seem almost inevitable — may not be on par with those produced in an actual classroom. Yet at the Ivies and their peer institutions, grades are usually considered above all else and now, with test scores widely optional, "The Dean" doesn't see this changing. The fact that you had B+'s even before the pandemic could work against you, too, and the recent C's even more so. There's really nothing that will compensate for a GPA that falls below an institution's norm ... not test scores and typically not extracurricular accomplishments (unless they're truly outstanding ... think "Feature story in People magazine"). If you do have a unique achievement or talent to share with admission officials (e.g., you've won a national science fair or published a novel), then make sure it's clearly highlighted in your applications.

But otherwise, your best bet is to raise your grades as much as you can between now and the time you apply. You don't say when you'll be heading so college, but I'm assuming you're just starting senior year this fall. If that's the case, you will need a super-strong first semester to prove that your downturn last spring was probably the result of the online schooling debacle.

There is a "COVID question" on the Common Application (and on some others, too) that invites candidates to discuss how the pandemic has affected them. I advise students to skip this question UNLESS they have been impacted more than most others have. If you do choose to answer this, your complaints about the virtual classes and exams would probably come off as sounding whiny, and might spur admission folks to say, "Geez, almost all teenagers are in the same boat." BUT ... if you can present these complaints with humor (e.g., in an essay that comes across more like a Saturday Night Live sketch or even in a song or poem that pokes fun at what you've been through), it might be worth taking a shot.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at

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