Class Selection and Transcript Analysis
Your transcript is a very important document that reflects all your courses and grades in school. College and graduate school admission officers will agree across the board that the number one factor in making admission or rejection decisions comes down to the transcript—the courses you take and the grades you earn as a student in your school.
Yes, many other factors are considered when you apply to college or graduate school, including your standardized test scores, extracurricular involvement, jobs, volunteer experiences, summer experiences, internships, honors and awards, teacher recommendations, counselor report, personal statement, and other supplemental college essays.
But, by and large, the transcript demonstrates to admission officers your selections and achievements in those courses/academic disciplines and serves as the strongest indicator of the kind of student you are within the context of your own school. Information about your academic performance is invaluable in predicting how successful you will be at the next level of your education.
Here is what colleges and graduate programs look for on a transcript and in your academic choices:
The degree of difficulty of the coursework you take within the context of your school.
Your grade patterns—a direct comparison between first and second semester, and year to year.
Trends shown by your grades: did your grades improve as you advanced each year or did they go down?
Whether you went beyond what was offered in your school: did you seek out additional academic experiences (such as community college, summer programs, independent study, or research)?
Let’s look closer at each factor.
Degree of Difficulty
Colleges receive an academic profile from each high school listing all of the courses offered at every of the 40,000-plus high schools in America. This profile shows all of the classes available at the individual school including college prep courses, Advanced Placement (AP), or honors/accelerated classes. An admission officer evaluates each candidate not only based on the grades earned but the degree of difficulty of the course load the student followed.
Admission directors like to see students with grade patterns that improve or at minimum stay the same from one semester to the next. If you earned a B first semester, they look favorably if you earned a B+, or better yet, some form of an A second semester. (If the class is only a one-semester class than you should work even harder to do well, since there is only one shot to succeed.) That improvement demonstrates you have mastery of the subject or have grown to master the material over time as it gets more difficult or in depth.
On the other hand, a student whose grades tend to go down second semester sends a different message. Perhaps as the school year moves on and gets progressively more difficult, this student could not master the harder material. Or perhaps the student begins to “tune out” as the summertime approaches. That grade dip can imply either laziness as the school year goes on, lack of focus, or that the second semester was more academically challenging and you could not keep up.
If all of your grades across the board drop in one particular semester that will send up red flags as well. Be prepared to justify the dip with an explanation to colleges (hopefully a legitimate one like you had mono or other long-term illness, experienced a loss or divorce in your family, etc.) as opposed to just saying “senioritis kicked in second semester!”
Admission officers next address grade trends. How did a student do overall from freshman through junior year or high school or college? Did the grades make an upward turn throughout as the student matured or did things go in a downward trend over the course of each year? Again, the closer you get to higher level work (i.e., junior year and fall of senior year), the closer you are in the eyes of admission officers to being a potential student on their campus.
The stakes keep getting higher the older you get and further along you are in school. Expectations increase about your ability, level of responsibility, and how actively you take learning and approaching courses into your own hands. If you’re worried about your own grade trends, don’t be afraid to seek help.
Additional Academic Experiences
For high school students: What if your school does not offer Advanced Placement (AP) or honors classes? Will you be penalized in the eyes of admission officers? Not if you explore other options. Here are some ideas of things you can do to supplement and enhance your transcript:
Take an online class in a course that your school does not offer or in a more advanced level than your school offers. Please see Chapter 17 for information on how to find a reputable online course.
Seek out courses at a local community college. Most of the time, courses are transferrable to your high school, and in some cases the grade you earn can even be added to your high school transcript.
Approach a teacher in a class you enjoy(ed) and see if you could be a Teacher’s Aide (T.A.) or if the teacher will do an independent study with you.
Though you want to have fun your senior year, don’t find yourself socializing and partying to the degree that it harms your grades and prevents you from having any college choices.
By all means, if you are not strong in math, then complete your high school’s requirements and double up with an extra elective in a concentration that interests you more—start learning another language or artistic discipline, or add an extra class in an academic area that you enjoy and usually succeed in more. Bottom line: seek out and chart the path you want your school experience to be—even if that means thinking outside the box.