Before we even get started, the first thing everyone needs to realize is that while colleges may not advertise their acceptance of C students, most of them do accept them.
In fact, 70% of college-going students in the US go to schools with acceptance rates between 50% and 85%. While the ultra-competitive schools we hear about on the news all the time may not consider anything below a 3.0, the truth is that the majority of colleges in the US will take a good hard look at a 2.5-3.0 GPA application, especially if test scores tell a different story. And, yes, these are 4-year colleges with traditional campuses and great educational opportunities!
Finding these schools and identifying which of them will provide the kind of academic, social, and cultural experience your student needs is not always that easy, but here's a great list, compiled by college counselors, that can provide a solid starting point. This list, in addition to more descriptive information on bigfuture.org, the White House's College Scorecard, or the DOE's College Navigator can really help you narrow your focus to 8-10 schools where your student might not only be accepted but also thrive.
Not all Cs are created equal
The second thing to realize is that not all C students are the same. Here are just five possible types:
- the solid student in a really challenging school
- the late bloomer
- the truly average
- the classic underachiever
- the undiagnosed learning disability
The differences between these types are apparent to teachers in the student's school but may not be adequately conveyed in the student's application to different colleges. That’s why the next piece of the puzzle, after you've developed your list of schools, is to solidify your application strategy to make sure your student is accurately represented.
What to do
Depending on what type of C student you've got, there are different parts of the application that you'll want to emphasize:
- The solid student in a really challenging school will want to request recommendations from teachers who can attest to how hard the student works, how engaged he/she is, and how difficult the school's curriculum can be. Coupled with these kinds of recs, high (or higher) test scores will go a long way toward establishing the student's capabilities.
- The late bloomer usually has low freshman and sophomore year grades and higher junior and senior year grades. Here, it's the grade trend that matters. Finishing with a strong junior spring and an even stronger senior fall can be helpful. Recs can also address the turnaround the student has experienced during high school. A well-planned gap year can also help not only with developing the student's maturity but also eventually with college acceptances.
- For the truly average, the school list matters most. These students need to choose less selective colleges that offer whatever support services they may need, including hands-on advising, peer tutoring, etc. To some extent, recs can help here, too. This student should choose teachers who can speak about how the student is trying and how the student persists through challenging material. Demonstrating engagement is key.
- The classic underachiever often has low grades but higher test scores. This contrast can suggest laziness or poor study habits to an admissions committee; sometimes, however, these students are simply introverted or disorganized. Recommendations can help. Students will want to choose recommenders who can speak to their engagement with material even if there is little class participation, or recommenders who can highlight what does get the student motivated and relate that to academics.
- Finally, the undiagnosed learning-disabled student needs to get the diagnosis and the support that comes with it. Adolescent boys often fall into this category; their parents may think that they are just too cool for school, but really, there's a learning difference that is preventing them from engaging. If a student is struggling and parents and teachers can't point to a specific reason, it may be time to screen for learning disabilities.
You’ll notice that recommendations play a key role for 4 of the 5 types. Never underestimate the importance of that one key teacher, advisor, coach, or counselor. C students, in particular, will benefit when an adult vouches for their hard work, improvement, engagement, or other factors that are difficult to convey in other parts of the application.