What College Admissions Officers Look For: Transcript, Academic Averages, Class Rank, Types of Courses Taken (page 2)
What is My Academic Average and Class Rank?
Your academic average or GPA is one of the most important criteria that colleges consider when reviewing your application. Although the format varies widely from high school to high school, the high school you attend sends a transcript of your work in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades. Colleges review your application and make decisions based on three-year’s worth of academic classes. Some high schools run on a semester schedule, others use trimesters and still others use block schedules. Block scheduling is a type of course programming where classes do not meet every day. Classes meet for longer periods a few times a week so students can focus more intently on these subjects.
There are high schools that use weighted averages and some that use unweighted averages. For schools using weighted averages, challenging courses such as Honors, Advanced Placement, College level, or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses receive extra weight. It is possible for students to attain more than a 100 average or a 4.0 GPA. There are students who graduate with averages of 120 or more on a 100-point scale or a 5.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale. In schools where unweighted averages are used, each class counts equally. Students can graduate with no more than a 100 average on a 100-point scale or no more than a 4.0 on a 4.0 scale. There are also high schools which submit both weighted and unweighted averages. Due to the varying methods used in calculating GPAs, some colleges unweight a weighted average, and some schools recalculate your GPA in order to equalize all applicants and to compare one high school to another high school.
You may be wondering how colleges know what grading policy your high school uses, and, as you can imagine, it can be very confusing at times. High schools typically send a “High School Profile,” which explains the grading policy of your school and other information about your graduating class, including standardized test scores, how many students are in your class, how many attend four-year colleges, whether or not your school ranks students, and what types of courses your school offers.
Then there is the issue of class rank. More and more high schools are moving away from ranking students, so check with your high school to find out your school’s policy. Although it sounds good in theory, class rank can actually hurt students. For example, in a very small graduating class of 50 students, the top 10 percent (the highest performing students in the school) of the class only includes five students. If you are ranked as the tenth student in the class, you can still have a very high average. If you are in a large graduating class of 500 students and you are ranked number 200, you could still be a 90+ student. It would appear that you are not doing well when in fact you have a very admirable average. Class rank can work to a student’s disadvantage, which is why some high schools are moving away from using it. Instead of using class rank, which could be misleading, some high schools indicate percentiles (top 10%, 20%, and so forth) to give colleges an idea of where you are in the graduating class. Other high schools do not use any type of ranking system or class percentiles. Colleges usually ask for the highest average in the class, so they can get a sense of where you are in comparison. Your high school’s policy about class rank is its to set, but you should be aware of the policy.
How Will Colleges View My Transcript?
A high school transcript is carefully scrutinized by college admissions counselors. Your transcript is your academic record of your ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade accomplishments. College counselors look at your overall GPA and your record in college preparatory classes. Transcripts vary in their appearance and content. In some high schools across the country, your grades on a state assessment are included on your transcript, such as the Regents exams in New York State.
In viewing your academic record, admissions counselors are looking for trends and how successful you have been in your course work. Are your grades fairly consistent year to year? Are your grades on an upward or downward curve? An upward curve may indicate that your work ethic has improved and you are maturing; colleges like to see this trend. A downward curve (especially senior year) may not be a positive sign. If there are any reasons for any inconsistencies in grades or a downward trend, you may want to give an explanation in an essay or in the additional information section on the application. There are some legitimate reasons why your grades may be erratic, including illness, divorce, or other personal situations. If there is a legitimate explanation (other than laziness), your guidance counselor can indicate in his or her letter of recommendation that you have an extenuating circumstance. Colleges may or may not be sympathetic, but at least they know what transpired in your high school career. Take an objective look at your transcript; determine whether you have performed consistently and whether you have any positive or negative trends, and you see what colleges see when reviewing your academic record.
What Types of Coures Should I Take?
In addition to viewing grades, admissions counselors are looking at what type of academic program you have taken in high school. Colleges do expect students to challenge themselves and not to take just “fluff” courses. Most universities recommend that you complete 4 years of English, 3 years of social studies or history, 3 years of math, 3 years of science, and at least 2 years of a foreign language plus the required electives that your state and high school require. More selective colleges expect you to take 4 years of English, 4 years of social studies, 4 years of science, 4 years of math, and 3 years of a foreign language, plus electives.
If your high school offers honors, Advanced Placement (AP), college level (courses offered through a local university), or IB courses and you believe you can do well in them, you should go ahead and take these classes (in some high schools you may need to be recommended by a teacher or chairperson). If, however, you attend a school where these accelerated courses are not offered, you are not penalized for not taking these classes.
Another commonly asked question is, “Is it better to get a 'B' (80s or above) in an accelerated course or an 'A' (90 or above) in a regular class?” The answer is that most colleges would prefer that you take rigorous courses and do well in them. The more selective universities answer that they expect 'A's or 90s in all accelerated courses. If you attend a high school where you are not tracked and you can take whatever classes best suit you, then you should play to your strengths. If you are a strong math and science student and an average or below-average English and history student, then you should focus on advanced classes in your areas of strength. The reverse is also true for students whose strengths lie in English and social studies. If you are an all-around good student, then you should attempt challenging courses in as many areas as possible.
Remember, if your high school does not offer any advanced courses, you are not hurt by this in any way. However, if you have an opportunity to take a summer or evening class at a local community college or university, your initiative is viewed positively.
TIP: Attempt challenging courses. If your school doesn’t offer what you want, take a summer or evening class at a local community college. Your initiative and desire to challenge yourself beyond what your high school offers make you a better candidate.