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When Your Application Needs More Than Autocorrect

Christina Taber-Kewene
You’re ready to apply to your dream school…but your grades aren’t as stellar as you’d hoped. Or, your test scores are low. Or, you’ve been out of school for a year and haven’t done anything useful with your time.

No one has a perfect application. Let’s talk about how to make yours stronger.

Low Test Scores

What can you do if your test scores are lower than average for the schools to which you plan to apply? The answer depends on your timing, but the simple response is: raise your scores! If it is October, then take the time to study and re-take the exam in November or December. Although you can receive a boost from applying early, it is not nearly as helpful as the increased chance of admission you will get with a significant jump in your admissions test scores.

If it is later in the admissions season and you still don’t have a high enough score to make it into the schools of your choice, you may wish to delay applying until you have put in the time to improve your score. Remember that not only admissions decisions but also scholarship money is in play. These are learnable tests, and with enough time, you can improve your performance.


A GPA below the median for your target school can stand in your way. If you are a college senior and need a higher GPA to have a good chance of being admitted to your top choice grad program, strongly consider delaying your application one admissions cycle. Two semesters of higher grades can significantly raise your overall GPA and make the difference in gaining acceptance and receiving needed scholarship money.

If you don’t have the time to delay a cycle, highlight your strengths in ways not represented by your GPA. If, for example, you have a quantitative background, highlight your written and verbal skills by emphasizing relevant extracurricular activities (debate club, anyone?). If your overall GPA is lower than the median but you performed well in your major or in classes related to the program you are applying to, ask your recommender to rave about your passion and intellect.

Letters of Recommendation

Two typical problems arise in obtaining letters of recommendation. Sometimes you might feel you don’t have a strong enough relationship with a professor. The other problem is when you have been away from school for a long time and you are unsure of how to get in touch with recommenders.

In the first instance, remember that professors expect such requests. Even if you have not written a senior thesis, worked as a teaching assistant or otherwise formed a close relationship with a professor, you can ask a professor for a recommendation. Think about the classes in which you have been outspoken and performed well. Set up a face-to-face meeting with your professor, provide her with your personal statement and resume, and explain to her why you are applying to this program. Help her understand your motivations so she can write you a strong letter.

Finally, give your professor an opportunity to say “no.” Ask if she can give you a strong recommendation. If she declines, politely thank her and find another recommender.

In the second instance, applicants often ask whether they should just use professional contacts for their recommendations. Each school has its own guidelines, but you will always need at least one academic recommendation if you don’t want to raise a red flag for the admissions committee.

And if you are a sophomore or junior considering programs, then build those relationships now. Writing a senior thesis or engaging in independent study with a professor is an excellent way to develop the kind of relationship that will help you get that glowing recommendation.

Lack of extracurricular activities or a gap in work experience

Schools are interested in seeing your development as a full human being, not only as an academic. Long-term involvement in extracurricular activities, especially those in which you have held a leadership role, is preferable to peripatetic club joining, so think quality, not quantity. If you are earlier in your academic career, get invested in activities, stay with them and grow with them.

If you have been out of school for a year or two or ten, you need to show that you have direction in your professional life. The biggest problem is if you have not done anything. Schools know that the job market has been tight, so include unpaid internships and volunteer work to show how you have developed and made the most of your situation.

Writing an Addendum

An addendum serves to address weaknesses in an application that you have not sufficiently addressed elsewhere. It should not read as an excuse or a complaint. Rather, it should be an explanation. For example, if your second semester sophomore year grades are low because you were caring for a terminally ill parent, you could provide a brief explanation. If your grades fell because you were pledging a fraternity, that would be seen as an excuse and not a good way to handle the dip in your GPA. If you choose to write an addendum, ensure that it is direct, succinct (while still providing sufficient details as explanation) and is not a complaint or excuse.

Final Advice

Have confidence in yourself and your experience. No application is perfect, but you can take steps to mitigate negatives and emphasize positives. Do your best, and good luck!

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