Bad grades happen to everybody. Even top students get their share of Cs and Ds every so often. Whether you are explaining this grade to a parent or to a graduate school admissions committee, remember that blaming others will only make it look like you are making excuses. The key to explaining a bad grade is not only to take responsibility for it, but to show how it is anomalous and not part of a larger pattern.
Start by describing the course, whether you are explaining a bad grade orally to a parent or in writing to a committee. Is it a particularly challenging course? Did the professor mention that students should expect their grades to drop, or that marks will improve by the end of the year? Is grading for the course done on a curve? Most importantly, is this a course in your field of study, or an elective that leaves you at a disadvantage to other students? Emphasize the fact that you like the course and you're glad you took it, but that you find it more challenging than you thought it would be.
Contextualize the essay grade in terms of your academic record. If you are a straight-A student, mention the fact that you've never received a grade like this before. Mention any past instances when you got a lower grade than you thought you deserved, and how you improved your overall grade by the end of the term. Try to minimize the effect of your low grade by demonstrating a consistent pattern of excellence or high achievement, and a willingness to improve when asked.
Avoid blaming your professor for marking too hard or not explaining the assignment properly. Don't make up excuses such as illness or fatigue; unless they are genuine, they will make you seem petty. Spin your excuse as a positive, instead. Maybe you took on a topic that was too ambitious, and while you challenged yourself and learned a lot, a low grade is the price you had to pay. Or, perhaps you focused too much on one aspect of the subject that really interested you.
Explain what you learned from the experience, and how you will work to improve your course grade to make it consistent with your academic history. You might mention that you've set up a meeting with your instructor to discuss what you can do to succeed on your next assignment.
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