So you messed up. Maybe misbehaving with friends got out of hand—and into the hands of the authorities. Maybe personal, family, or social problems distracted you from preparing for college. Maybe you’ve never taken school seriously, but you’re now realizing that your low grades or lack of commitment will limit your choices when it comes to life after high school.


Everyone knows that the consequences of major mistakes can follow you for a long time, especially when you’re applying to college. College acceptance rates get lower every year, and even students with perfect records can’t always attend their first-choice schools. Even if you’re motivated to turn your life around, you might be wondering whether it’s simply too late to salvage your high school career.


I’ve known several friends and family members who struggled or made major mistakes in their teenage years, even though they’re smart, talented, and generally wonderful people. While I didn’t share their experience, I empathized with it; the teenage years can be a truly difficult time in life for so many reasons. Still, I worried that their youthful missteps would hurt them later on.


More recently, I’ve gotten the opportunity to watch some of those loved ones get back on track and improve their lives. I’m excited and proud to see them share their talents with a world that’s lucky to have them, and I truly believe it’s possible for you to do the same. No matter what your past holds, you still have options, and working to get your life back on track is always a worthwhile endeavor.


Ready to turn over a new leaf? Good for you! You can’t change the past, but you can decide what you’re going to do next, and that choice matters. Here’s what you need to know to make a real change and set yourself up for a brighter future.



Accepting the Consequences of Your Past


It would be nice if when you decided to turn over a new leaf, that decision made your past mistakes go away. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Real change comes with the understanding that your actions in the past still have consequences, and those consequences will continue to impact your life.


For example, let’s take your grades. If you haven’t taken school seriously, you likely have some low grades to show for it. Those grades will remain part of your GPA even if you improve later on, and they’ll most likely mean that it’s not mathematically possible for you to have a very high GPA.


Low grades mean that you’re unlikely to be admitted to the most competitive colleges—their acceptance rates are low even for the valedictorians of the world. As we’ll discuss below, you do have options for continuing your education, but you’ll have to accept that that may not include attending a top-tier college.


The same goes for behavioral problems. If you’ve shown demonstrably poor judgment in the past, colleges and employers will wonder whether you might do so again in the future. This may not seem fair, particularly if you feel that you’ve changed substantially, but from their perspective, it’s a reasonable worry.


If your disciplinary issues have resulted in police involvement or legal consequences, this may affect your future as well. For example, if you’ve been convicted of certain criminal offenses or are currently incarcerated, your eligibility for federal financial aid may be limited.


It’s not always possible to directly and fully repair the damage you’ve caused, either to others or to your own prospects. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put in the effort to do better; it just means that you need to be realistic about the effects of your past actions and your expectations for the future. You do have options, but you may not have the easiest access to the options you like the most.


Talking about the lasting impact of your checkered past may feel a little discouraging; no one likes to dwell on the ways they’ve messed up. Coming to terms with the consequences of your actions is a necessary part of turning your life around, however, and as we’ll discuss later in this post, accepting responsibility for your poor choices may help convince others to give you another chance.



You Can’t Start Fresh, But You Can Move Forward


If you can’t fix what’s already broken, what do you do? The next step is to move past it. You’ll not only need to break your old habits, you’ll also need to let go of unproductive guilt and shame about your past.


When you’ve realized the error of your ways, it’s easy to get caught up in feeling guilty. This is especially true if your actions have hurt others. Dwelling on these feelings, however, can make it more difficult for you to move forward.


Recognizing that you did something wrong is an important step, but it’s only the first step in creating change within your life. Once you’ve made a genuine effort to make amends, you need to focus on building better habits and surrounding yourself with supportive people, including therapists, mentors, or others whose job it is to help guide your progress.


In the greater scheme of things, you’re still very young, and you have plenty of time to change the path you’re on. Look around and you’ll find many examples of people who struggled in their early years, but overcame that obstacle to live satisfying and successful lives. Even Albert Einstein did poorly in grade school, proving that difficulties early on don’t necessarily reflect your full capacity for intellectual and creative contributions to the world.


You might even find that these people get special respect for the work they’ve put in to turn their lives around. Underdog stories are always popular in our society, and your own turnaround may surprise, impress, and inspire others.


In fact, your experiences might make you uniquely qualified to fill some valuable roles in the world. You might use your struggles and the knowledge you’ve gained from them to do the work of helping others who are struggling with similar problems.


Your past actions don’t have to dictate your future. It’s easy to get mired in despair or think that you no longer have the choice to pursue academic or career goals, but that’s not true. Don’t let that attitude prevent you from seeing and seeking out opportunities to rebuild.



Practical Options for Your Educational Future


Practically speaking, what happens next? While this list isn’t exhaustive, it makes clear that if you’re motivated to turn your life around, there are ways that you can extend your education past high school and reap the benefits that college provides for your career and personal development.


If you’re still in high school, you should know that there are tools available, both in your school or community and online, to help you rebuild and make the best of the time you have left before your graduate. Your guidance counselors, parents, and tutors can be valuable allies when you’re seeking out these tools.


When it comes to your next steps, remember that college doesn’t have to look the same for everyone—”nontraditional” students are actually quite common. A rising grade trend, or other evidence of improvement and dedicated hard work, can be impressive to future colleges and employers. Pursuing less traditional educational opportunities can give you the chance to show that you’ve really turned things around.



Getting Help in High School

The more time you have left in high school, the greater your opportunity to demonstrate changes in your attitude and dedication before it’s time to make decisions about college. Buckling down academically and staying out of trouble are always good ideas, and resources exist to support you as you make these changes.

If your family is able and willing to help you, they can be a great source of support. Often, your teachers and guidance counselors will also be more than willing to work with you if you’re seriously committed to self-improvement. Even if they’re not able to provide help themselves, they may be able to direct you toward other resources, like counselors and mentors.

If you’ve struggled academically, tutoring or homework help programs can make a big difference to your grades and standardized test scores. Established programs likely already exist in your school or wider community. You’ll also find myriad options for academic enrichment online, from online courses through Khan Academy to our own CollegeVine tutoring and mentorship programs.

If the issues in your past have more to do with your behavior, you also have options. Talking to a counselor or therapist may help you figure out why you’ve acted out in the past and what changes might be most effective for you. Joining a new extracurricular group or taking up a new hobby can productively occupy your time and help you develop social connections that influence you more positively.

Every student has different needs, so there’s no one right way to make changes. Some students may benefit from major changes like switching schools, but that’s not always necessary. What’s most important is that you surround yourself with allies who can support, encourage, and help you as you pursue your new goals.


Nontraditional Colleges and Programs

Not every college takes the same approach to selecting and educating its students. If your background is unusual—or unusually messy—you may find that a college that comes from a less traditional perspective offers options that fit your needs particularly well.

Nontraditional colleges or colleges with strong programs for nontraditional students can be especially appealing if factors like military service or having children make your life notably different from that of the stereotypical college freshman.These programs are built to accommodate the unique needs of nontraditional students, with features like flexible scheduling and targeted advising.

For more on this topic, take a look at our posts Can I Attend a Top College if I’m a Nontraditional Student? and Rethinking College Entirely? Think Again: More Options to Make It Work for You.


Community College and Transfer Admissions

If you want to get started on your education, but you know you’ll have a hard time getting admitted to competitive four-year colleges, it may make sense for you to attend a community college initially. Community colleges typically have open admissions policies, and as a bonus, they’re less expensive than four-year schools.

After a year or two at a community college, where you’ve hopefully improved your record, you can apply to transfer to a four-year college. Some colleges even maintain guaranteed transfer agreements with local community colleges. For information about the pros and cons of this option, see the following posts:




Taking a Gap Year

Taking a year off after high school before you start college is an option that’s gaining popularity for students in a range of different situations. Malia Obama, daughter of the former President, even took this path in 2016, though her reasons were different. If you use the time wisely, a gap year can give you the time and space to rehabilitate your resume and show that you’ve really turned over a new leaf.

Finding a worthwhile way to spend your gap year is an absolute must, and you should know that colleges differ in how they evaluate post-gap-year applicants. To learn more about your options, check out the posts Should You Take a Gap Year After High School? and What You Need To Know When Applying to Colleges After a Gap Year.



Talking About Your Past


Even if you’ve improved dramatically, you may still worry about how others—especially colleges—will view your past mistakes. That’s a reasonable worry, but there’s work you can do to give yourself the best possible chance to be perceived positively.


First of all, you absolutely must be honest about your past. When you apply to colleges, they’ll see all of your academic records, and they’ll also ask specifically whether you have a history of disciplinary problems. Any attempt to hide, deny, or lie about these events in your life will reflect poorly on you, and might even result in your admission being rescinded.


While telling the truth might be scary, it is possible to mitigate the impact of this disclosure somewhat, as long as you’re open and truthful about what happened. Colleges will give you the opportunity to submit additional information about these events, and you can and should use this space to acknowledge your wrongdoing, describe what you’ve learned from your experiences, and detail the work you’ve done to make amends and get back on the right track.


For more information about how to present past issues on your college applications, check out these posts from the CollegeVine blog.



Applying to college and generally approaching your future can be a scary prospect for anyone, especially if you have a past that you’re not proud of, but you still have the opportunity to turn your life around. I hope this post helps provide the encouragement and resources you need to start your journey toward a better future.


Monikah Schuschu

Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.