What Matters Most to Colleges? Good Grades

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The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently released its annual State of College Admissions report, revealing that, while considerable weight is placed on application elements like test scores, essays, and more, the most important factor that colleges consider when admitting applicants is grades - specifically in college prep courses.

Everyone knows that students need good grades in order to gain admission to colleges - especially when competing for spots at elite colleges with admit rates as low as 5%. What many fail to consider, however, is the courses in which students are getting those good grades.

Why Grades Matter
There are a number of things that colleges are looking for when admitting students, and those needs or wants can vary from institution to institution. While one college might need more female STEM students, another might need to admit more business students. What all colleges want, however, are students that are ready for the demands of a college course load, will make good grades, and graduate within four years.

There's no better indicator for a student's preparedness than grades in challenging courses like AP or IB, that are designed to mimic the rigors of a college class. Even good SAT or ACT scores, while in many cases necessary to keep you from the "no" pile, don't give admissions officers much insight into just how prepared applicants are for a college curriculum. After all, those scores are just based on how well students did on one exam on one day - not how students did in the classroom day in and day out.

Students can put together amazing applications with stellar essays, unique extracurriculars, and glowing recommendations, but without the grades an application can land in the "no" pile very quickly.

Why Courses Matter
Grades take the top billing when evaluating what college admission officers care about the most, but closely behind that is the courses students are taking, and how they're performing in their most challenging classes. Straight As are impressive, but if all of those As are in standard classes, it's not going to be as impressive as straight As in all AP or IB courses. Colleges don't just want to see good grades, they want to see good grades in challenging classes. This is why we always tell students to take a challenging, yet appropriate course load every year, and to increase the difficulty of that course load every year.

Course selection also matters for students applying to certain academic programs. For example, colleges will want to see a student applying to an engineering program taking challenging STEM courses and making good grades in those courses. The combination of course subject, difficulty, and performance is essential to standing out as a specialist when applying to college.

What to Do When Your Grades Are Not Great

Not only are colleges looking at grades - they're looking at all grades from all four years of high school. So what do you do if you started your high school career with a few Bs and Cs? The great thing about the holistic review process is that admission counselors are human, and they recognize that high school students are human, too.

Many times students can go into high school unprepared for the rigors of the curriculum, and couple that with immaturity and lack of realization that bad grades can come back to haunt them, and you can see poor performance in the classroom. College admissions officers know this - that's why in addition to good grades and challenging courses, colleges also look for upward grade trends. If a student does poorly freshman year, but makes better grades sophomore through senior year, with an curriculum increasing in difficulty each year, that's a positive development. That tells the admissions office that this student adjusted, matured, and improved from freshman to senior year, and he or she is ready for the demands of a college course load.

If you're struggling with bad grades, seek guidance to adjust your course load to match your academic abilities while still challenging you. Work toward an upward grade trend, and seek help from your teacher, classmates, and tutors to improve your performance.

Grades themselves carry a lot of information for college admissions officers and are the most important thing they consider when deciding who to admit. Don't neglect academic performance! Admission to your top-choice college depends on it!