College Options for Low Achievers

Parent Q&A

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  • My son, who is a high school senior, is bright but has never been very interested in school.  He has always basically done the minimum needed to get decent grades (A's and B's) but spends little time on homework, studying for tests, or working in advance on long-term projects.  He's also highly disorganized and refuses to use a calendar or plan his work ahead.  He shows absolutely no initiative when it comes to school, and not much even when it comes to the sports he ostensibly loves.  He worked with a college coach to identify potential fields of interest, prep for the ACT, and write two essays (didn't come up with much in terms of interests, did very well on the ACT, and the essays are OK but not great).  If it weren't for my substantial "help" I'm not sure he'd even be getting his applications in to colleges in time.

    From talking to friends and relatives, it seems that a lot of boys are in a similar place at this age, including my husband and several male cousins who eventually did well once they started to take school seriously.  I'm wondering if it might be better for him to go to a community college for two years, rather than head straight for a 4-yr. college or university.  I'd like him to experience the social aspects of starting out as a freshman away from home, but not if he's going to flounder so much that he ends up dropping out.

    I'd love to hear from parents who've been in a similar situation and find out what their kids did and how it worked out.  All advice greatly appreciated.

    Consider not sending your son to college right away but rather putting it off for a year and have him do a gap-year program, or even just work at a job for a year. My son is the same, also 18, also not interested in school, but he didn't even make the effort to get good grades. Instead of going straight to college, we put him in a gap-year program, he's learning so much, is maturing and growing, and getting clear on what's important to him. And he's spending his time with a group of young people who are going to college, which is great, he's learning that going to college is important. If a gap-year program isn't possible for your family - they can be expensive - just working for a year is enormously educational. He'll learn the value of work, of earning an income, and of what he's capable of. He may also learn the importance of being organized, and of applying himself when the approval of someone other than his parents is at stake. I say think outside the box. 

    I wonder if your son would be interested in a trade education. Cal Maritime Academy is a Cal State University and its engineer careers put the kids under some academic training but mostly it is hands-on. It is a small campus and they have strict rules of conduct because they prepare the kids for jobs that entail safety and security of systems, ships, and logistics. And their graduates get very well paid jobs soon after graduation. Take a tour and find out more about it. It's a great school and it's nearby.

    My son was exactly like yours, not overtly smart but definitely with the brains if he applied himself. But he was scattered and uninterested in anything academic. He was a B-C kind of kid and boasted that he rarely studied during high school and definitely did not spend real time for homework or projects in his high school years. Fortunately for him he chose and got accepted to Cal Maritime. He had some hiccups with his academics but he did graduate last year, is now well employed and loves his job.

    For my son community college would have been a black hole because he was not focused and was not ready to navigate what is basically an independent study. In my opinion to succeed in a community college you have to know what you want, stay focused and find friends who have similar goals as yours. Knowing my son we believed he would have associated with kids that were not academically inclined. Cal Maritime provided a focused environment, only 5 careers to choose from, not the sea of options and set courses that were determined buy your choice of career path. For my son that worked great.

    I agree with you that freshmen year is important. Lifelong friendships are formed then, and the students get a sense of living 'independently' away from home. Both my kids loved those first years as they started the process of separation. Whichever choice you/him make, my suggestion is make sure he has all the required courses to apply to a 4 year college, and apply. You can always decide last minute to go the community college route. Also, if he ends up going to a 4 year college, monitor his academics closely. Get him to authorize you to access all his records immediately after starting school. Will be glad to discuss more personally if you are interested. Much luck.

    Absolutely "encourage passively",  to attend a Jr. College rather than a 4 year.   My fearful, not particularly mature, procrastinator of a son was accepted after high school into Cal State Long Beach where he basically skipped most of his classes, made no real friends, didn't care about the "college experience"/hated dorm living, etc.  After that debacle and me still paying for an education he didn't truly want, we encouraged him to go to the the local community college and as time went on, he became more interested in heading off (transfer student) to a UC.  MUCH BETTER! 

     I just don't believe that most boys are mature enough at 18/19 to leave home or even know where to begin in life.  All is working out very well now.  He has a roommate (his best friend from high school--had to be "safe"/familiar for him), is still a homebody, but pretty much knows what he wants to do on the career/school front and is more mature now.   My suggestion is to not put too much pressure on him on anything! It only makes them defensive and in turn they fight back on parental "pressures".   I strongly believe that most boys come around and figure out things in their own way, on their own time, eventually.  Good luck!

    My senior son sounds somewhat similar.  I'm making this up as I go along, but in his case I told him I would not get involved in the college process except when asked.  I decided the hassle and organizational challenge of applying to college would be a good litmus test for if he's ready to go. Maybe not a perfect one, but if it isn't important enough for him to get his act together (and he's a kid who can accomplish amazing things when motivated) then that's a sign he isn't ready.  It's too early to say how this will turn out, but he knows he owns this journey completely, and that there's no shame in working instead if he isn't ready to go.  So far he's applied to one and plans to apply to a few more, but the jury's still out on if he'll pull it all together to be ready to go this fall.

    I know of too many kids who go because they are overly encouraged/helped or because they can't think of anything else to do and it's just not the right choice for them. It's a waste of college and family resources to send them when they aren't ready, in my opinion.  In my experience the people who get the most out of college are the ones who have to struggle to get there (they know why they are there), so maybe I'm trying to give him that opportunity to feel the struggle and own the reward, if it works, or to not go down that path yet if he isn't ready.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


How can my 'average' student go to college?

May 2009

My 10th grade daughter is an average student who tries very hard to get good grades. Her GPA is about a C. She has a few extra curricular activities but nothing major. She really wants to go to college. That being said, how will we find a college for her? She wants to go to a UC or State school but she tests horribly and I am certain her SAT scores won't help her cause. It seems that there are lots of counselors out there who help kids prepare their essays etc but it feels to me that these are more for the high achievers than for an average student. Does anyone know of a college counselor who works specifically with kids who don't have a 4.0 and tons of extra curricular activities? or do they work with everyone? also perhaps there is someone who finds colleges that are slightly off the radar/less competitive/more willing to look at the whole child? any help appreciated. thanks bpn'ers! mom of a great, average graded kid

Hi, I am a Berkeley/Oakland-based college advisor and I think I am representative of many independent counselors. We mostly do not specialize in the highest-achieving students, but welcome students at all levels of achievement who could use support for their college search and application process. I also co-teach summer essay workshops where, again, we welcome all rising seniors regardless of their academic records or college goals. I think that often it is families with their sights on one of the 50 most-talked-about schools who hire advisors, but as student-centered professionals we are often advocating for families to consider other excellent but perhaps less well-known options.

For your daughter, an excellent route to CSUs and UCs is the community college system, which is relatively inexpensive and does not require SATs or other tests for admission. There are some community colleges with dorms, too. Good luck! Susan Weber

I want to send you some encouragement. Just last week my daughter selected the college she will attend, out of 9 acceptances (she also got one rejection and one wait-list.) This is not because she has a 4.0 or is student council president. She had just below a B average, and virtually no extra-curricular activities. We had been worried about her options.

The couselor we worked with made a big difference, in two ways: first, she gave us a realistic picture of schools my daughter could probably not get into, so we could get over that and move on, and then she introduced us to a bunch of wonderful small schools she had a good chance at. The one she will be attending I had never heard of, but I've been there twice now and read up and it's a great school.

Second, she helped my daughter think about herself and present in the best way. In her case, we realized that, although she hadn't done classes and clubs, she does lots of cool creative stuff on her own. She prepared a photo portfolio of this work, even though she is not planning to major in art, and wrote a short essay about the role of self-directed creative activity in her life. Well, guess what? ''Self-directed'' is a very sought-after quality in a student! Though I don't have solid proof, I attribute this approach, along with well-chosen schools to apply to, to her really great experience in this process. So, above all, start thinking about what your student has to offer and how to express that. Never mind what they don't.

Counselors can also help suggest activities for students to participate in to increase their appeal, though we started too late for that. We did not do an expensive ''package'' with our counselor, but worked on an hourly basis, spending about $1200 over all. I'm not sure if all of them will do this, but it can't hurt to ask. Good luck! college mom now

My son was the same. He graduated from Berkeley High with a 2.6 GPA. He was really quite shocked when he realized he could not get into the CSUs or UCs. But don't worry - there is hope! Check out the community colleges - lots of kids go to very nice ones in Santa Barbara and so on, as well as in other states. And we learned that state universities in neighboring states have much lower standards than we have here in California! I suspect also that they are happy to get the out-of-state tuition from the California students who couldn't quite get in to our fine universities. It turned out for us that the overall cost of a university in another state was comparable to going to a UC. My son applied to several universities in Western States and was accepted in the first round of admissions even with his crappy GPA! He had a very nice 4 years at U. Arizona. (Of course there are many lovely private colleges too, if your budget will allow that!) Best wishes to you - average mom of average kids

My oldest son was the same way. He was torn between going to a Cal State or UC. We checked out all the -- to put it nicely -- lower level U.C.s (Merced, Riverside, and Santa Cruz). He started cramming for those awful subject tests that go along with the SAT and finally said, he didn't think he wanted to go to a school where he'd be at the bottom level.

He ended up going to Sonoma State and loves it. He has become so independent and is pulling in all As and Bs, taking a full load and working part time. For us, it's been wonderful. Plus, the classes are smaller and he actually knows his professors. He's really into school - I can hardly believe it.

Take a good look at a few of the Cal States - Chico is very nice too, as is Humboldt, for smaller schools that aren't really commuter schools. Good luck. The UCs have never been harder to get into.

Also, there is some western affiliation program where she could go to an out of state college in Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, etc. where she won't pay much more than in-state tuition. It's limited but there are some great schools like University of Southern Oregon.

P.S. We tried a college counselor too but they are really geared to getting kids into top UCs or Ivy League. Don't spend your money, I found they don't really have any ''secret'' advice you can't find on the web. Been there with average student

Yes, your average child can go to college, but it may not be at one of the more prestigious colleges. My two daughters, one a senior in high school and the other in her second year of college, were both average students with poor SAT scores and not a lot of extra curricular activities. I thought that neither of them would get into any college with their grades and testing scores. They didn't get into state schools and the more prestigious schools, but my oldest daughter got into two all women Catholic schools (less competition) where the class sizes are small and she is happy, and my daughter who is graduating was accepted into a few smaller private schools, but has decided that she wants to start with a year or two at community college first and work on her grades and then try to get into a better four year school, which sounds like a good plan to me. So, you have to be realistic - either private school or community college. Good Luck. RVF

I wouldn't rule out community college. They have specific tracks/course loads designed to get kids into UCs and Cal State schools. I know more than a few people who took that route to UCs.

I know there is a stigma attached to community colleges, but they do a great job of getting kids ready for the bigger schools. Also, if your daughter is struggling to stay at an average level in high school, she might benefit from an intermediate step such as this.

I have twins in high school, who each have several Fs on their transcripts. As a straight-A student who won several college scholarships, this was so hard for me to deal with... until I talked to an academic counselor last year. She told me about the number of kids who graduate from high school, do two years at a community college, and then transfer to a U.C. She said about 75% of kids who graduate from U.C. start at community colleges. Not only does this lower the stress for your kids, it is so much more affordable than a 4-year college. My brother is paying $28,000 for his daughter's freshman year at a school that isn't even considered that expensive. I understand wanting your daughter to attend a good school but maybe consider this option just to lower the stress all the way around. Mom of nonacademic twins

Your daughter may be getting ''average'' grades because she is not in the right high school for her. If she was in a small school she might get enough individual attention to get her gpa up to a 3.0 - enough to get into a Cal State without the SAT. I recommend Envision Academy in Oakland, although there are other small charter schools in the community where she will be seen as an individual and given extra time with those subjects she is struggling with.

There are some small colleges, most of them Christian, in the mid-west, that will accept a young person who has shown consistent grades and who really want to go to college. One of my daughter's friends is in her 3rd year at one of these schools in Iowa, and doing better grade wise than she did in high school.

She can always start at a community college. 2 years taking the basics, and taking advantage of the extra help they give there might be what she needs.

Good luck to you. Jenny

There is no ''average'' student. The job of an independent college counselor is to help students recognize and fulfill potential, and to inspire them to work on weaknesses so they are competitive in a hyper-competitive world. A good college counselor will reduce the stress between parent and child over the college process. A good college counselor should be able to work with most learning difference problems, and guide families to schools that will take over where a parent leaves off. A good counselor will also ensure that the student applies to colleges that will meet the family's needs financially as well as being a good fit for the student.

Regardless of whether or not your student works with an independent counselor, the school-based counselor must be good. The school-based counselor has access to student records, letters of recommendation, and teachers. The independent counselor can learn the desires and needs of the student and family. A counselor should go beyond what a parent can easily find on the internet or by talking to other parents.

There are many different kinds of college counselors. The most common are those who took a course. This provides them with a basic introduction to what resources are available for students. However, good counselors tend to be seasoned (but not burnt out). Some counselors are mothers who helped their children apply to college. There are those who are lawyers and are formal in their approach. There are those who are licensed psychologists and provide a therapeutic approach to college counseling. There are those who have doctorates and have done research on education and students. And there are those who can recommend colleges based on the faculty at those colleges because they have served on the faculty of major universities. Important questions to ask independent counselors include: Where did the counselor go to college, and what did they do before they became college counselors? One last bit of advice. The most important thing is that, when the process is completed, the student's self-esteem is intact and s/he feels proud of where they have been accepted. The worst case scenario is for a student to leave home believing that he or she has failed parents or self because s/he was waitlisted or not accepted somewhere else.

I hope this is helpful. I would be happy to answer any general questions. Wendy Walker-Moffat

I posted earlier on the positive experience my child had in the college application process, and how helpful our counselor was. I did not include her name in my original post because she has a part- time practice with very few openings, and I wasn't sure that she would want to receive that level of public referral. I have spoken with her and confirmed that she does not. While she did a great job with us, I'm sure many others could do similar work. Here is what I found to be her most valuable and helpful qualities:
* She knew A LOT about the schools, both in CA, regionally, and in some cases across the country. She travels to visit schools and keeps up with their news and stats. So she could give us a very realistic picture of how they choose and what they consider.
* She really likes kids, is enthusiastic, and radiates a sense to them that it is doable. She took time to really get to know my daughter, asked her a lot of questions, to help her figure out how best to present her strengths. She has since met with my younger child, and in both of them, she brought out a level of engagement and maturity that was impressive, which must be related to\x85
* She puts the kid in the lead. When we sat at the table, she faced the kid, asked her direct questions, subtly sent the signal that we were the advisors, the kid was the director of their own fate. Which is what needs to happen.
Good luck! college mom now


Options for son who is not a good student

Aug 2005

Our son's in his senior year. He's not a particularly good student, doesn't test well, and is not motivated as an individual learner. However, he just came home from a fantastic summer experience in Asia with a group of teens, traveling, living in a village, doing community service work. It was (by his own admission) the best thing he's ever done and is now sad to be returning to ''normal.'' I'm looking for programs/colleges that can duplicate that group experience and experiential learning, as well as counselors who can assess our son's strengths and suggest some good post-high school choices for him to consider.

We've explored for our son, and we're very impressed with the staff. We've dropped this possibility for a host of reasons, but it's well worth checking out for your son. has hundreds of internships for young people as well as two programs that offer college credit in cooperation with New College - one for a semester and another for a year, and both integrate internships abroad.

We had our son take a series of aptitude tests at the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation, Inc. There are 2 days of testing, I think it was about 2 or 3 hours of testing each day. Located in San Francisco (near BART). Then a week or so later parents and teenager go in for the results. Receive scores on a number of aptitudes (NOT intelligence testing...but what your natural skills and abilities are). You also get a booklet describing the various aptitudes and a 150 page book ''learning to use your aptitudes.'' The testing is pricey ($600), but I thought well worth it. It confirmed and clearly defined some things we ''fuzzily'' knew about our 18 year old son. The counselor gives examples of types of jobs/careers in which the ''testee'' may be happy, AND those which would be a bad fit. This organization has been around for a long time. My husband and his siblings were tested by them in 1970. Good luck.
a concerned parent

This is in response to the parent seeking advice about Alternative colleges and counselors. I know of some great alternatives to the normal colleges. These include: The Evergreen State College, Reed College, Antioch, Hampshire, The New College, and the New School of Social Research. These schools often stress experiential learning, international travel, and putting theory into practice. Many students with labels such as ADD or ADHD often find their learning differences greatly reduced - or even completely gone - when they find school environments which work well with how they learn. It's all about context.

In response to the above, may I say that Reed College, where I just dropped off my Albany High graduate daughter, is not really an alternative college, but rather is an old-style school where the emphasis is on academic achievement. The classes are small (maximum 14 students) and the academic program is rigorous, but the atmosphere is very supportive for the kids and the curriculum caters to a love of learning.

BTW, there are many of us who do not accept ADD/ADHD as illnesses and who feel that such problems are related to students who, for whatever reason, are not being adequately stimulated by their learning activities. A place like Reed College is often a solution to this problem, and does not require drugs! Best, Bob


Not Harvard Bound



Does anyone have recommendations for private college counselors. Hate to have to pay for something I feel the school should offer but it might be money well spent. (We're not Harvard bound, we may be DVC bound, but would like someone able to discuss the options.)

Is your son or daughter 4-year bound eventually? What are his/her interests? Both DVC and College of Alameda have a very high transfer rate to the four-year system. Students can also take courses at multiple community colleges and they will appear on one transcript.

If your son or daughter is going to community college for general requirements, then the place they feel most comfortable will work well. Beyond that, different community colleges have excellent programs that have a specific focus, i.e. Alameda for fashion design, Merritt for horticulture, SF City College for culinary, etc. A few years ago, quite a few students went to Chabot (Hayward) and Ohlone (Fremont) as well as the Peralta District Schools (Vista, Laney, Merritt and Alamenda) and DVC in Pleasant Hill and CCC in Richmond, both which have excellent drama programs.

The nice thing that Vista does in their course schedule that I haven't seen at any other school is letting you know whether a course is acceptable for the UC system or the CSU (Cal State University) system. Their spring schedule can be picked up at 2020 Milvia.

Flora Russ, Berkeley High School Computer Technologies Department