Which Grades Do Colleges Look At?
We’re sure you’re tired of hearing about the importance of good grades by now. After all, good grades are what get you into your dream school, right? But which grades do colleges actually look at? Do they see your whole high school career or just a few focused areas? Are some grades more important than others?
In this post, we will show you the lens through which colleges assess your high school grades and offer up some useful tips to help you make your transcript the best it can be.
Report Cards Vs. Transcripts
It’s important to remember that when colleges review your grades, they will not simply look at your report card. They will review your transcript. Your transcript has a great deal more information than a simple report card and provides a much better snapshot of your high school career to the admissions officers.
While report cards often display only your final or midterm grades for one particular semester, transcripts document your final grades in every class you take throughout each year as well as your cumulative GPA. They also give details about the actual courses you take. This will be important later when we discuss what colleges want to see on your transcript, so keep that information in mind.
Transcripts may also include data about:
- The number of days you were absent.
- Standardized test scores.
- Academic honors or awards.
Colleges will review your final grades throughout each year of high school in several core subjects. Extracurriculars and electives are valuable in showcasing your interests or that you are well-rounded, but these core classes will be the most crucial to assessing your academic ability. While these subjects may vary from school to school or depending on the program or scholarship for which you have applied, admissions officers will tend to review the same important subjects.
Admissions officers may look at the following core academic subjects:
- Social Studies.
- Foreign Language.
If you find yourself falling behind in one or more of your core subjects, it may be worthwhile to refocus your studies away from extracurriculars for a period of time to ensure you meet the basic academic requirements at your favorite schools.
Don’t fret too much if your freshman year grades are not as high as you want them to be. College admissions officers understand that it takes time for students to adjust to high school. After all, the workload and academic expectations are much different than middle or grade school.
Students who have low final grades freshman year can use the opportunity to showcase their ability to adapt and improve. As you adjust to your new curriculum throughout the coming years, make an effort to build study habits that will improve your final grades over time. Admissions officers will recognize your work ethic and your drive to push yourself to be the best you can be.
Colleges will most likely not be as forgiving toward your sophomore year grades. If you had low grades freshman year and you show few signs of improvement your sophomore year, it could hurt your chances at admission to your favorite schools. In the same vein, having decent or even stellar grades freshman year and failing to maintain them into your sophomore year could also be detrimental.
Know your limits as you set your sophomore year schedule. Students who are still adjusting to the high school workload may want to keep their abilities in mind. Don’t take on more than you can handle before you’re ready because it could reflect poorly on your final grades for the year and your cumulative GPA. However, you should also plan to take any prerequisite courses you may need before junior and senior year.
For many colleges, junior year grades are crucial. When most students apply for colleges and scholarships, their junior year grades will be the most recent showcase of their academic abilities. Not to mention, the grades you earn during your junior year are a vital support for your cumulative GPA. Slacking off may result in a lower cumulative GPA at the end of your senior year, even if you work hard to bring it back up.
This is also the year when you will want to start adding higher level courses to your schedule if you have not already begun to do so. Examples may include dual enrollment courses, AP classes, Honors classes, and more.
You may only be able to send in your first semester of senior year grades when you apply to colleges, but that does not mean you can slack off during your second semester. Your junior and senior year grades are by far the most important for college admissions. Even if you have been accepted to your dream school, a significant blow to your cumulative GPA from a drop in your second semester grades could affect your admission status. This is especially vital for students who may have been placed on a waitlist.
Students who have a clear first choice when it comes to the university they want to attend may be interested in applying for Early Action or Early Decision. Early Action allows students to apply to a desired college and receive their admissions decision earlier than usual, often in January or February. EA students do not have to accept the offer and can wait until the normal deadline to make their decision about which school they will attend.
Early Decision, on the other hand, is a binding agreement. You will only apply for ED at your top school and if you are completely sure it’s where you want to go. Students who are accepted via ED must attend that college as long as their financial aid package is manageable. You will receive your admissions decision even earlier than with EA, usually by December, so this can be useful for students looking to prepare as much in advance as they can.
Keep in mind that EA and ED decisions may still be affected by your final semester grades.
What Do Colleges Want to See On Your Transcript?
Here are some of the key pieces of a transcript that colleges will want to see.
Good Grades in the Right Places
As we mentioned above, admissions officials will pay close attention to your grades in core subjects like Math, Science, and English. Do your best to maintain good grades in these classes because they will most likely give you a better chance at admission than a high grade in PE.
GPAs are a tricky subject. Most colleges do want to see a relatively high cumulative GPA, especially in more competitive programs. However, admissions officials will not look at your GPA without thinking about the context.
Your transcript provides a full list of the classes you took throughout your high school career. One student with a high GPA may have taken much easier classes than a student with a slightly lower GPA. Colleges pay attention to the difficulty of your curriculum when considering whether your cumulative GPA is acceptable for admission.
Admissions officers want to accept students who challenge themselves. Breezing through high school with only the easiest courses and emerging with a high GPA will not be enough to get you into competitive programs. If your high school offers AP or Honors courses, try to incorporate a few into your schedule, but be careful not to overwhelm yourself. It may be useful to ask your guidance counselor to help you develop a schedule that is challenging enough to make an impression on colleges but still manageable for your abilities and other commitments.