Tag Archives: Northwestern University

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!

What is a High School Profile and What Role Does it Play in College Admissions?

College 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.”

Each school’s guidance office develops a 2-4 page “school profile” that describes the community and high school.  While there is no standard format for the high school profile, typical information includes the curriculum, grading system, grade distribution, average test scores, and college acceptances.  The profiles tell colleges how rigorous and competitive the high school is, and this information impacts the way a college will evaluate a students’ grades and course selection.

Your GPA

The high school profile typically explains how your GPA is calculated, which includes what courses factor into the GPA, and whether advanced courses receive a weighting. For example, Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY gives an extra .5 weighting for Honors courses and 1.0 for AP courses.

Students often wonder how they can possibly be compared with students from other high schools. The answer is that in addition to viewing your high school’s approach to your transcript, colleges typically recalculate an unweighted 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.

Grade and Test Score Distribution

High school profiles also typically include a grade distribution chart showing the percentage of students at different GPA brackets or the distribution of each grade for each course; as well as average standardized test scores for the SAT and ACT.

When viewed alongside average standardized testing scores, GPA information reflects the degree of grade inflation or deflation, and for private schools may also reflect the selectivity of admissions to attend the school. For example, if most students at a school earn As, but have average standardized test scores compared to national or state figures, colleges would conclude that the school has grade inflation.

Rigor of Curriculum

Colleges also evaluate whether you have challenged yourself in your coursework.  Again, colleges view you within the context of the curriculum offered at your school. The variety of curricula include International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, both, or neither. Each high school profile clearly describes the curriculum available at the school.

For example, if your high school offers a minimum number of AP courses, you will not be expected to have taken the same number of APs as students with access to a large number of AP courses. For example, Great Neck South High School, a public high school, offers 31 AP courses, as compared with Chaminade High School, a private Catholic school, offers none.

Having said that, it is possible to take courses outside your high school to fulfill your intellectual passion and also demonstrate this to colleges. If you have strong interest in a particular academic area in which coursework is not sufficiently offered at your school, you could consider taking courses outside of school – at a local college or online. For example, students interested in pursuing engineering or other STEM fields sometimes opt to take Multivariable Calculus or Computer Science at a local college or through online courses if their high school does not offer these classes.

For guidance on how to reach your academic potential, feel free to contact us at www.collegiategateway.com. As always, we’re happy to help!

Taking a Gap Year before Medical School

Deciding when to attend medical school—and therefore when to apply—is one of the most important decisions that you’ll face as an applicant. Sometimes, taking a gap year before applying can be a beneficial decision, both personally and academically. To make the best use of a gap year, students should reflect on their career goals, and use the time to both confirm their interest in medicine and strengthen their candidacy for medical school.

According to Washington University in St. Louis, students should choose gap year activities carefully, and seek ways to grow as a competitive, interesting applicant.

“For example, a student with a marginal GPA would be best served by using that GAP year to strengthen his or her academic record more than taking time off to travel abroad to engage in volunteer work. Likewise, someone with strong academic credentials but no experience in medically related activities would best be served using that time to engage in activities that demonstrate a capacity and passion for such work. Either way, it’s best to always “stay connected” to medicine during this year off. Unless you are an academic superstar with a stellar record in every way, I would be very careful using your GAP year to simply travel the world and nothing else. Use your time wisely. For a great list of ideas, check out GAP Year Resources.”

Taking a gap year or years before medical school is common and encouraged. In 2015-16, the mean age of applicants at anticipated matriculation to medical school was 24 years old for women and 25 years old for men (AAMC).

Robert J. Mayer, faculty associate dean of admissions at Harvard Medical School, has noticed an increasing trend of applicants taking a gap year over his ten years in admissions at HMS. “[When I first started] about 60 percent were coming out of college. Now, it’s about 35 percent.”

According to Duke University, more than 75% of Duke students apply to medical school after they graduate, and the average age among the incoming Duke Medical School class is 24. Duke’s Office of Health Professions Advising states, “Students who engage in a year or more of experiential activity after graduation and before entering a health professions school are more mature, resilient, confident, and accomplished… and competitive.”

Northwestern University’s Academic Advising Center notes the struggle pre-meds face in managing the application process alongside the responsibilities of being an upperclassman:

“Balancing school, extracurricular activities, clinical volunteer experience and research is difficult enough. Throw in the MCAT, medical school applications, and interviews and the task can be truly overwhelming. A year spent working, completing a post-bac program, volunteering or doing research prior to applying to medical school, known as a “gap year” or a “bridge year” can be a great option! In fact, about 60% of NU students who are accepted to medical school take at least one (sometimes more!) gap/bridge year(s).”

In addition to taking a break after college to recharge and reflect, there are a number of ways you can use your gap year to make yourself a stronger applicant.

Strengthen Your Academics:

Improve your GPA. Most students see their academic records improve during their senior year; you have more control over the courses you take, you’re used to the college environment, and more of your courses are within your chosen major. The transcript you submit to medical schools during your senior year might look different than the one you’d submit a year later, after you’ve finished your undergraduate coursework. Waiting a year to apply to med school gives you an additional semester to take extra and/or high level coursework that could strengthen your academic record. Moreover, taking extra time gives you the opportunity to enroll in a post-bac program (more on these below) to improve your GPA during the year you are applying. If you are concerned that you may be applying with a less than ideal GPA, here are some more helpful tips.

Study for the MCAT exam. Studying for the MCAT while balancing a full-course load, an internship, and the rest of your many responsibilities can be quite challenging. Taking time off can be a great way to give yourself extra study time. Most importantly, it allows you the flexibility to retake the test if you are unhappy with your results the first time around.

Gain Medically-Related Experience

Gaining real-world perspectives on medicine can reinforce whether medicine is the right path for you; and if so, help you explore which areas of medicine most interest you. In addition, it can also strengthen your admissions chances. There are many ways in which you can gain experience in the field. Here are some the best:

Research: Participating in laboratory or clinical research is a phenomenal way to explore the field of medicine with an especially scientific focus. While many students pursue research while on campus during the school year, there are also numerous research opportunities at medical schools and research centers over the summer and beyond. Just like finding the right job or internship, it is important to find a research position that is a good fit for your abilities, interests, and goals. So do your research!

Volunteer Work: 
Medically-related volunteer opportunities are a great way to give back while also gaining hands-on experience. Working with patients in a clinical setting is beneficial for your own professional development and in the application process. Almost all volunteer efforts will help you to develop communication skills, motivation and teamwork. And sometimes, they’ll provide you with a good reference!

It can be equally beneficial to work for a local organization, such as a hospital or community clinic, or a national organization, such as Americorps or GlobeMed; it depends on the particular opportunity available, and whether it matches your interests. There are many resources to help you find volunteer opportunities, including the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), and the International Medical Volunteers Association. As always, the trick is to find an opportunity that matches your interests and rounds out your experiences.

Post Baccalaureate Programs:  Post-bac programs are especially useful for students who need to bolster their GPAs. They also allow college graduates to fill gaps in their academic record by taking one or all of the courses required to apply to medical school. Some post-bac programs cater to career changers (those who need to complete most or all of the science core), and others to academic enhancers (those who have completed the core but are taking advanced science electives to improve their science GPA, or prepare for the MCAT), and some accept both. Programs are offered across the country, by colleges large (e.g. CornellUSC) and small (e.g. BrandeisBryn Mawr)

Additionally, some programs, such as those offered by Columbia University and NYU, offer “linkage programs” with their affiliated medical schools. These programs help especially competitive students “link” directly into the university’s medical school following the completion of the post-bac program. 

Pay Down Debt

According to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the median debt for medical students graduating in 2015 was $183,000.  It’s important, therefore, to try to limit any other debts you might have beforehand. A recent US News article recommends paying particular attention to credit card balances, as having a high amount of consumer debt can limit your ability to borrow money to pay for medical school.

There are many reasons, both personal and professional, to take a gap year before applying to medical school, and there are a variety of ways to use that time productively and effectively. For more information, or to talk about the best options for you, contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help.