As school starts again across the country, seniors are feeling pressured to complete college applications, while freshmen are simply trying to adjust to high school. Regardless of what grade you’re in, if college is in your future, it helps to think of the college application process as a storytelling process. At its most basic level, a college application is a story about you. While you have no way of knowing how admissions officers will interpret your story, you have full control over what your story says. No matter where you are in your high school career, you should be putting thought and effort into crafting that story.
The most important part of your story is your transcript, and understanding how your transcript is used in the college admissions process is critical. Your transcript is a record of your academic performance throughout high school. When examining your transcript, most colleges, especially those that are selective and highly selective, will look at more than your cumulative GPA. They also will look for trends in your grades. For example,was your GPA solid throughout high school; did it start out low and then improve; or did it start out high and then decline? Colleges prefer students with one of the first two trends over the last one.
Colleges also consider the kinds of classes you took in the context of what was available at your school. You might be wondering how a college would know what classes your school offered. When high schools send students’ transcripts to colleges, most schools also send something called a school profile. Usually, the profile includes a list of courses the school offers, so colleges can see if your school offers advanced courses, whether in the form of honors, college prep, AP, or IB. Once colleges have that information, they can look at your transcript to find out which, if any, of those courses you took. Colleges would rather see that you took a more challenging class and got a B than to see you took an easier class and got an A. (Of course, if you took a more challenging course and got an A, that definitely works in your favor.)
Now that you understand what colleges look for on a transcript, it’s important to consider the kind of story you want your transcript to tell. Contrary to popular belief, colleges do care about the grades you earn freshman year. In fact, those grades generally are a good indication of how you’ll do throughout the rest of high school. However, if you don’t do well in ninth grade, that does not mean you won’t be able to get into college. Colleges tend to be somewhat forgiving of a mediocre freshman year, because they understand that the transition to high school can be difficult. The important thing is to improve your grades in the following three years.
Statistically, it becomes harder to raise your GPA as you progress through high school. Your courses are likely to become more difficult, and the more courses and grades you factor in, the less your GPA can move in either direction. So starting out strong in ninth grade and staying strong throughout high school is in your best interest.
You also need to think about where you want to challenge yourself. While colleges like to see that you took higher level classes, you do not need to take the most advanced courses in every subject. Rather, you should pick 2-3 of your best subjects and take higher level courses in those areas.
So, freshmen, as you begin your high school career, spend some time thinking about what kind of story you want your transcript to tell. And seniors, if you’re not happy with your story, you’ve got one more semester (depending on when you apply to college) to revise it.