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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 www.collegiategateway.com. As always, we’re happy to help!