We all know that colleges care about your grades and academic record when you’re applying to college, but you may be wondering what exactly they’re looking for.
It’s more than just your GPA. When evaluating your academic performance “by the numbers,” colleges care about so much more than just your final GPA. As you know, many high schools have different ways of calculating GPAs, and have different weighting systems. For that reason, colleges will usually look beyond the weighted GPA to see the actual grades you received in each course.
They look at the actual courses you’ve taken. Instead of just looking at your grades, colleges pay very close attention to the specific courses you’ve taken. You’ll want to challenge yourself as much as you can, without causing your grades to suffer. Colleges will see if you took regular precalculus in 11th grade instead of an honors, AP, or IB course. And they will see if you stopped taking French senior year because you only had to take 3 years of foreign language to graduate from your high school. You want to make sure that any course you take in high school is a course you feel is challenging and worthwhile.
They won’t expect you to take courses that aren’t offered. Not every high school offers honors, AP, IB, or other advanced options. That’s OK. If your school doesn’t have any advanced course options, the colleges you’re applying to won’t penalize you for that. Your counselor will send a profile of your high school to every college you apply to so they’ll know what course options are available to you. This means they can also see which courses you didn’t take.
Colleges notice grade trends. Let’s say you’re getting lots of A’s now, but your grades at the beginning of high school weren’t so great. Colleges will notice that you have an upward grade trend, and perhaps be more forgiving of your weaker grades earlier on. Similarly, if your grades were great early in high school, and have gone down in 11th grade, colleges will notice that as well. If there is a legitimate excuse or reason for your grades to decline, such as an extended illness, it could be worth mentioning in your application.
If you have a class rank, colleges will look at it. If your high school uses class rank and reports it on your transcript or in your secondary school report, the colleges you apply to will see it. That being said, they consider class rank within the context of your school. If you go to a very small high school, class rank is not going to mean as much. Similarly, if you go to a very competitive school, they will take that into account when considering your rank. They will also pay attention to other factors that could affect your rank. For instance, if you transferred high schools after 10th grade, that could affect your rank – so it is important to provide information about special circumstances to the colleges you’re applying to.
The most important thing to know about how colleges evaluate your academic record is that it is all about holistic review. Colleges look at your entire academic picture within your particular context. More important than any one particular aspect of your academic record, colleges care about how all of the academic pieces fit together.