What grades do colleges really look at? As with most questions, the answer to this is the ever-frustrating, “Well, it depends.”
There are three concepts that underscore the answer to this question:
- Many colleges will be using an official transcript.* For most high school students, the transcript is a different document than a report card: it contains both different amounts and different types of information. For example, a report card might contain mid-semester grades (sometimes called quarter grades) or a progress report with comments from teachers. A transcript generally only contains final grades—either for the semester or full year. Transcripts also often contain information about the number of absences a student has had or, sometimes, even his or her standardized test scores—so it’s a good idea to request a copy of your transcript at the end of each year in high school. This way you can see what’s there and make sure it’s accurate!
- Admissions officers care about grades in core academic courses the most. Sure, it’s awesome that a student “aced” P.E., but that’s not really relevant to the person trying to evaluate academic performance! What is relevant? A student’s grades in core academic subjects. That said, as an admissions officer, if I had seen weak or failing grades in non-academic courses, I wouldn’t have been impressed. What would that have told me about the student’s character or work ethic?
- GPAs lie. Well, really, they muddy the truth. A perfect 4.0 might not be so perfect when course weighting, grades for non-academic courses, and varying grading scales are taken into account. When I worked at Reed College, I saw GPAs on 4.0, 5.0, 7.0 and even 10.0 scales! Because high schools across the country can calculate a GPA in any number of ways, admissions officers dig deeper than the raw numbers in order to understand a student’s high school performance over time. GPAs will not be taken at face-value; as a result, it’s a standard step in many admissions processes to “recalculate” a student’s GPA and to take note of final grades in each course, each year.
So, what does this mean when you put it all together? Colleges see any and all grades and information reported on your official transcript (again—you should request a copy!), but they care most about and evaluate your final grades in core academic courses.
Put yet another way, colleges look at final grades in English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language during 9th, 10th, 11th, and (yes, even!) 12th grades. These are the grades which will be evaluated. If you’re applying in an early admission round, your admission officer will see the first quarter of 12th grade; if you’re applying in regular decision, your admission officer will see grades for the entire first semester of senior year.
The take away here is that all grades matter, but they are evaluated over time, with patterns and trends in mind—and you’ll never be “just” a GPA.
*Some colleges (for example, the University of California system) ask you to self-report your grades. In these circumstances, only the grades you are asked to self-report will be evaluated.