I have been through the college application process with each of my three oldest kids. Between them, they have 15 college acceptances. In fact, each of my kids was accepted to every single school where they applied. Those colleges ran the gamut from flagship campuses of big state schools to small private colleges.
To be fair, while some of the colleges were considered highly selective, none of the schools were Ivy League-caliber. Even so, 15 acceptance letters is pretty good, and you might be wondering if my kids were super kids with perfect academic records and a history of solving world hunger.
They had average GPAs with strong, varied extracurricular activities. If that sounds like your kid, then relax. There is hope.
Advice for parents with teens who have average GPAs
Listen to expert advice.
Our high school employs dedicated college counselors to help shepherd both the teens and the parents through the college application process. I know that we were fortunate to have them, but I will take a little credit for my kids’ application successes because I was smart enough to listen to the expert advice the counselors offered.
The college application process certainly has become more nuanced than I remember it from back when I was the one applying to college. If you and your child are hoping for a lot of merit aid, or to play a collegiate sport, or to be admitted to a highly competitive university, you could benefit from some expert advice. If your high school doesn’t have dedicated college counselors, it is worth it to hire one, or at the very least to research the process and become an expert yourself.
One piece of advice our college counselors gave us was to demonstrate a genuine interest in the colleges our teens were applying to. This was useful advice. Making the effort to drive to an on-campus visit does show a college that you really do think you might want to go there. Colleges want to extend acceptances to kids who might actually attend, which helps improve their yield ratio.
We also learned that the kind of kids we had — polite, with great extracurriculars and friendly personalities — made a good impression when they were touring the campus, visiting a class, or speaking with a professor. Whenever we had the chance, we drove to a college and had our kids spend the day there, visit a class, meet with a professor. Whatever was possible, we took. I think it made a difference.
My kids wrote so many essays! I think colleges ask for multiple essays in their applications in another attempt to separate the interested from the ones applying indiscriminately. A number of essay topics are similar, and a student could get away with reusing the same essay multiple times. But I think it paid off for my sons to personalize their essays to the university and to the questions they were being asked. Also, it is 100% worth getting guidance with the essays. If your child can write a sincere and unique essay, it can make a difference.
4. Recommendations matter.
I have no doubt that the teacher recommendations each of my kids got had a huge impact on their acceptance rate. If your children are like mine, with a history of strong involvement in activities, they probably have many teachers who know them and like them. That’s who they should ask to write a recommendation.
5. Know what a college values.
Different college cultures value different qualities in their student bodies. Identify what it is for each college, then highlight those qualities in their essays and applications. For example, my two oldest sons were each student body president, so we looked for colleges that valued that type of leadership experience.
Both of them ended up attending the same college, and each one was awarded a generous financial package — not because of their grades but because of their leadership activities. My third son was accepted to that same college, but he wasn’t awarded as much merit aid, despite having higher grades in high school. That particular college valued kids who had been student body president, even over GPA, but other colleges look for different strengths. The key is to match your kids’ strengths with what each college values.
While I think all three of my sons are fabulous, I know that a lot of you have children who are similar. You have a great kid, who contributed to their high school and community in many positive ways, but maybe their GPA isn’t as high as you had hoped it would be.
In my experience, many colleges do want students like that. You might have to look a little harder for the right fit, and work a little harder on the applications, visits, and essays, but it can pay off.
All three of my average-GPA sons landed at an excellent college that both wanted them and made them happy. One of my sons is now in law school, the second graduated from college this past May and has started a thriving business, and the third one was accepted to his university’s honors college after his first semester because his college GPA was so high.
When they were in high school, I sometimes despaired over how their commitment to extracurricular activities cut into their study time, but it actually turned out okay. Many colleges do want active, social kids who will make a positive contribution to the life of their community.
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