Category Archives: Grades

The Role of Grades in College Admissions

Your grades throughout high school remain the most important factor in college admissions.  While colleges also look carefully at your standardized test scores, essays, recommendations, and other personal factors, they view your grades as the strongest predictor of your academic success in college. This blog explains how colleges view your grades and curriculum in the overall admissions process.

Grades are #1

81% of colleges surveyed by NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counselors) give considerable importance to both grades in college prep courses and grades in all your courses. The chart below shows the percentage of colleges attributing different levels of importance to various admissions factors:

 Why Do Grades Matter?

 Admissions officers consistently say that your day-in-day-out grades are the best predictor of your academic performance in college.  Research shows a strong correlation between high school grades and not only academic performance in college, but retention and graduate rates as well.

While standardized test scores still play an important role, admissions staff recognize that your one-day test score may be impacted by a variety of factors such as test anxiety, inadequate sleep, lack of exposure to test-taking strategies, and test center distractions. But your grades show whether you have demonstrated persistence and focus on academic performance throughout your high school years.

Which Grades Matter?

The trend in your grades is important as well.  Often students take time to adjust to the greater freedom and responsibility of high school, and this is reflected in weaker grades during freshman year. Some colleges, such as Stanford University, explicitly state that they do not place importance on 9th grade grades. “We will focus our evaluation on your coursework and performance in 10th, 11th and 12th grades, primarily in the core academic subjects of English, mathematics, science, foreign language and history/social studies.”

All colleges place more emphasis on your grades in junior and senior year.  Your junior year grades are included on your official transcript, and colleges see your first-semester senior year grades in the Mid-Year Report (which is required by all colleges). And colleges also require your final report card for senior year, and occasionally rescind their acceptance offer if your grades significantly drop.

In addition, if you are applying to a specialized field, your grades in certain courses will receive more attention.  For example, for business or engineering programs, your math grades are particularly important.  For nursing, your science grades will be looked at closely.

How Important is the Rigor of Your Curriculum?

The strength of your curriculum plays an equally important role. Rigorous courses include accelerated, honors, AP (Advanced Placement), IB (International Baccalaureate), and dual-enrollment courses (in which you receive college credit as well). Admissions officers encourage students to take the most challenging curriculum that they can reasonably manage. Williams College advises, “Applicants to Williams should pursue the strongest program of study offered by their secondary schools.”

Students who are especially ambitious and talented sometimes choose to take courses beyond what is offered at their high school at local colleges or online; one of the most common is Multi-Variable Calculus, which is the next course in the math sequence after AP Calculus BC, and rarely offered in secondary schools. So if you are planning to major in a math-based field, such as engineering or physics, and you complete AP Calculus in junior year, your candidacy would be enhanced by taking Multi-Variable Calculus in senior year, in a local college or an online course.  Similarly, students interested in pursuing art in college often take specialized art courses in their community if their high school has a limited selection.

For admission to the most selective colleges in the US, competitive students typically take courses to the end of the sequence in four or five of the core curriculum subjects of English, history, language, math, and science.  The “end of the sequence” would be defined as an AP-level course or a High-Level IB course.

If a student has a particular interest in one of the core subjects and is planning to major in that area, a competitive curriculum might include high-level courses in four of the five core areas, with a doubling-up in the student’s area of interest. For example, a future history major might take AP Government, AP Economics, AP Calculus (AB or BC), and AP science, and not take a high-level language course.

Trends in Admissions Factors

Over the past decade, grades in college prep courses has remained the top factor, and over the past few years, grades in all courses has become an equally important factor.  The next most important factor is the strength of the curriculum.This year, strength of curriculum is viewed as more important than standardized testing. The chart below shows trends over the past decade.

How Do Admissions Officers View Your Transcript?

 Admissions staff always view your transcript within the context of your high school. Colleges recognize that schools vary greatly. As Northwestern states, “Every secondary school is different in its level of competitiveness and in the range of courses offered. These factors are also considered when admission decisions are rendered.”

In addition to evaluating your school’s transcript, colleges typically recalculate your GPA using a standard formula, so that they can compare students from different schools with different GPA scales.  Usually, colleges will use a 4.0 scale, where A+ and A = 4.0, B+ = 3.7, B- = 3.3, B = 3.0, and so on.

Action Plan

We recommend that you develop a preliminary plan of courses when you begin high school as a freshman. You can then re-evaluate your plan each year, based on your academic performance, your interests, your college goals, and your commitments to extracurricular activities. Your coursework should be your top priority in high school, and at the same time try to live a balanced life with sufficient time for activities, family, friends, and sleep!

There are many ways that you can reach your potential with your academic performance.  Most importantly, engage in your courses. Keep up with homework, try to review your notes regularly, and don’t wait until the last minute to study for tests or write your papers.  If you need help, see your teacher, work with other students, and use review books.

The college admissions process is complex, and success requires thoughtful planning from the start of high school. Feel free to contact us at As always, we’re happy to help!

Pass/Fail, and Other Trends in Med School Grading

In recent years, there have been vast changes in the way medical students are evaluated and graded. Most notably, many medical schools have replaced their letter or tiered grading system (honors, high pass, etc.) with a much simpler one: pass or fail. According to a recent AAMC initiative, the number of schools using a pass/fail system in the pre-clerkship increased to 87 in 2014 from 71 the previous year. A school’s grading policies have far-reaching implications on its academic culture and community, informing everything from stress levels and competitiveness to the methods by which students are evaluated. As such, it is important that prospective medical students take grading policies into careful consideration as they evaluate different opportunities. 

Rationale for Pass/Fail Grading for Pre-Clerkship Years

This change can be largely attributed to a greater concern for medical student’s overall well-being. One study in Academic Medicine found that the class of University of Virginia (UVA) medical students who were graded pass/fail showed a significant increase in satisfaction as compared to their counterparts who were evaluated using a standard letter grading system. An even broader study surveyed students from seven different medical schools, and found that students evaluated using grading schemes with three or more categories had higher levels of stress and emotional exhaustion, and were more likely to experience burnout than those who were graded pass/fail. Many schools also find that a this system fosters a greater sense of collaboration and cooperation among students, while diminishing competitiveness.

The benefits of this pass/fail grading scheme extend beyond the students themselves, as it may also be helpful to schools as they seek to attract the best and brightest to their institution. In fact, a survey at UVA Medical School found that 81% of the entering class cited the pass/fail grading system as somewhat to very important in their decision to accept the offer of admission.

Examples of Pass/Fail Medical Schools

Schools that employ pass/fail grading during the pre-clerkship years include  Case Western School of Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Rochester School of Medicine.

Even within the standard pass/fail grading system, however, there are small differences that distinguish one school from another. Students at Harvard Medical School, for example, are given grades of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” during their pre-clerkship years, but students of exceptional merit can receive a Letter of Excellence that is added to their permanent file.

Many students are wary of pass/fail schools that may still track grades and establish ranking orders behind the scenes. However, schools such as Yale School of Medicine explicitly state that “there are no grades and there is no class ranking.”

Concerns (and Rebuttals)  

As expected, there are some concerns associated with a pass/fail grading scheme. Some worry that a non-tiered grading system may negatively impact students’ residency placement, scores on medical licensing exams (USMLE Step 1 and 2) or overall academic performance. If students are placed into only two categories, is there less incentive and, therefore, less motivation for them to work hard?

These concerns, however, have largely been refuted. The study cited above, involving UVA students, found that a change from a letter grading scale to a pass/fail system did not result in a decline in students’ academic performance or USMLE Step 1/2 scores. Furthermore, there was no negative affect on residency placement, as demonstrated by the quality of residency programs to which students were matched.

Alternatives to Pass/Fail for Pre-Clerkship Years

Despite the hype about pass/fail grading, there are still a significant number of schools (~81 according to AAMC) that evaluate their students using greater than two categories during the pre-clinical years. Pittsburgh School of Medicine, for example, employs a three-tiered grading structure: Honors/Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory for the first two years. The University of Maryland School of Medicine employs a letter grading approach: Honors, A, B, C, D, F.

Different Grading Approaches for Different Years

 Schools often employ different grading schemes depending on course types or year of medical school. The pass/fail system discussed above largely applies to the pre-clerkship years of medical school, when students are learning and reviewing the sciences before entering clinics. The majority of schools recently surveyed by AAMC also use the simple pass/fail system for grading students in electives. However, many schools utilize an entirely different grading scheme when evaluating students in their later years of medical school. In fact, the majority of schools surveyed by AAMC use a four-tiered grading system: honors, high pass, pass, and fail for required clerkships and fourth year electives and sub-internships.

Evaluation Components

In the same way grading frameworks are changing, so are the actual methods used to evaluate students. Schools not only assess their students using standard written exams, but now also use a variety of novel evaluation techniques. Although Yale does not give grades for the first two years, it still employs unique forms of evaluation such as direct questioning during seminars and laboratories to deem acceptable performance or not. Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern provides feedback to students using conventional methods such as examinations, as well as skills assessments, and narrative evaluations. Moreover, as of 2012, students at Northwestern build an electronic portfolio that is continuously reviewed with their mentors to ensure they are meeting the school’s required competencies.

Schools such as Perelman School of Medicine at UPenn utilize particularly innovative assessment methods, including simulations and standardized patients. Made possible by recent advances in technology, these assessments involve a patient simulator in a realistic hospital environment. Standardized patients, however, are trained individuals or in some cases, actual patients who help to create real-life medical scenarios.

Academic Honors

Often, these evaluation techniques are used to identify students for academic honors. Boston University School of Medicine awards Latin honors (e.g. summa cum laude) based on a number of factors: performance in courses, scores on medical licensing exams, and other more subjective criteria, such as “extreme initiative and talent.” Other types of academic recognition include membership in the medical honors society Alpha Omega Alpha, as well as distinction in research, and various clerkship and departmental awards.

Every medical school differs slightly in its approach to grading, and it is imperative to thoroughly research schools of interest in order to properly understand these nuances. For more information on medical school grading or any other part of the medical school application process, contact Collegiate Gateway – as always, we’re happy to help.


College Grades and Employers: What Matters to Whom

It is not uncommon for students, having worked hard throughout high school in order to gain admission to the college of their dreams, to question the importance of their college grades. Some may think: I’ve gotten into a good college; isn’t it enough to do reasonably well? Does it really matter whether or not I have straight As? Didn’t George W. Bush have a C average at Yale? Things worked out OK for him, right?

The fact is, your grades in college do matter, and not just for those who intend to go on to professional school. But how much they matter will vary somewhat, depending on the employer and the industry.  Keep in mind that GPA is one of many factors that employers use to evaluate prospective employees, and your activities, internships and work experiences are highly valued as well.

Large vs. Small Companies

The extent to which a company will weigh a prospective employee’s GPA depends on a number of factors. It is well-known that more competitive industries tend to care more about grades, especially when you’re talking about particularly selective jobs in finance and consulting. A lesser known factor, however, is size; generally, larger companies will expect to see your GPA on a resume, and will more commonly use that number to screen applicants. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Job Outlook 2013 survey, the percentage of employers who screen candidates by GPA reached an all-time high this past year: 78.3% of the survey’s 200 respondents. Notably, these respondents tended to be big companies, averaging about 7,500 people on the payroll.

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Of these same respondents, 63.5 percent of respondents reported a “cut-off” (or minimum GPA required for consideration) of exactly 3.0, with just over 20 percent using a GPA cutoff greater than 3.0.  The remaining 16 percent of respondents use GPA cutoffs less than 3.0, with some as low as 2.0. Notably, these minimum GPAs remain fairly consistent across industries.

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Generally, however, smaller companies and start-ups place a lesser emphasis on GPA. Nevertheless, if your grades are good, you should say so. While these employers don’t necessarily expect to see a GPA on your resume, it doesn’t mean they don’t care at all. In a recent article in Forbes, Dean Iacovetti, director of recruiting at a Apprenda, a software company in Manhattan, stated that while he didn’t require applicants to report a GPA, he still takes notice of a strong one. “If there’s an individual graduating with a 3.5 from Cornell, that’s someone I’d like to see.”

The Role of Other Factors

If you’re concerned that your grades don’t quite measure up, however, don’t despair. While GPA can be a large factor in determining qualifications, it is still only one factor. There are a number of ways to make up for and explain slightly lower grades. For example, recruiters at many companies are familiar with the schools where they recruit; they understand that a B in a tough class at a competitive school may be a greater accomplishment than an A somewhere else. Additionally, if the GPA in your major is better than your overall average, you can list that number, or both.

Another recent survey of 704 employers by the Chronicle of Education found that, while grades are important, experience is even better; employers place more weight on real work experience, particularly internships and employment during school than academic credentials including GPA and college major. Approximately 50% of science and technology employers valued candidates more based on their experience, compared to 19% who valued candidates more based on academic merit. In media and communications, 48% valued prior experience more and 20% valued academic records more. As such, students can compensate for lower grades by emphasizing work experience, and highlighting successes.

For more guidance developing your career, contact Collegiate Gateway – we’re happy to help!