#College Essays and Applications

Let’s be honest. There’s a lot that goes into college applications: grades, test scores, recommendations, activities, and essays. It can be hard to figure out what is important and what’s not, and how to get real information about what matters. 

For today, let’s dive into grades. 

No substitute for grades and rigor

Without question or context, grades and rigor are the most important part of college applications. While your grades, of course, are the scores a student receives in their classes, rigor refers to the difficulty of the classes your student chooses: regular, Honors, AP, IB, etc. No other component will carry as much weight or be scrutinized as thoroughly. They are the primary determiner of a college list (that is, which schools a student should consider as a reach, likely, or target), play a significant factor in admissions, and provide your student’s primary access to merit scholarships. 

Your student’s grades and cumulative GPA are evaluated as the first part of a holistic review process. Firstly, your student’s grades are examined in the context of rigor. Is that junior A from an AP or IB class or a regular level one? High grades in more difficult classes show a student who is willing to challenge themselves and engage with difficult, college-level material. However, don’t worry if your student’s school doesn’t offer AP or IB classes. College applications are sent with a school profile, so an admissions officer will be able to accurately evaluate your rigor in context.

Colleges will also note when and in which course a student received a specific grade. Lower grades in freshman year, when students often struggle with transitioning to a high school workload, can have less impact, especially if the student shows a positive trajectory after the fact. Lower grades in junior year (or the fall semester of senior year), however, can make colleges worry about the student’s college readiness. Finally, a B+ in Calculus looks very different on the transcript of a potential political science major than an applicant to engineering school! 

How much should I worry?

While your student’s grades are worth attention, we don’t mean to suggest that a single B or less rigorous course is going to ruin your child’s college applications. Students have good semesters and bad semesters. They may click with one teacher’s teaching style and not with another’s, or struggle with one subject specifically. 

The key, in all of these circumstances, is demonstrating that that grade or that course is the exception rather than the rule. In our previous example, for instance, lower freshman-year grades can be minimized if the student shows continuous improvement afterward. A single lower grade or regular track course in a student’s college applications can be contextualized and minimalized by the surrounding transcript.

So what do I do? 

During Course Selection: Students should take the most rigorous courses they can while still setting themselves up for success. While rigor is important, strive to maintain a balance between challenging courses with mental health and intellectual fulfillment. 

Consider your student’s interests. For a student interested in a STEM field, AP Physics or Chemistry may be more important than AP English Literature. Additionally, schools tend to consider certain AP subjects to be weightier or more rigorous than others, including subjects like Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics. 

AP and IB courses can be challenging, and many students will struggle in those courses. However, it’s important to bear in mind their potential impact on other coursework, as well. For example, if struggling to memorize all the dates, figures, and treaties in AP European History will occupy so much of your student’s time and energy that their other courses will suffer, it may be more beneficial to take an Honors history course instead and allocate that time elsewhere. 

Throughout the Year: Be proactive, rather than reactive. With Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas, and other learning management systems, students have more access to their grades than ever before. Check-in on test and assignment grades, and look for patterns. While this is certainly not something that needs to be done every day, look to strike a balance between being aware without creating too much stress. Making adjustments after one bad test is a lot easier than bouncing back after a bad marking period. This is especially true in math and foreign language classes, where new material compounds on old topics. 

If My Student is Struggling: Make a plan before the end of the semester. Improving a course grade can take time, even with extra help from a teacher or a tutor. Plan on spending time and energy strategically as well. If a student has two B+s and a B-, for instance, it may be advantageous to focus on turning two B+ grades into As, marking that B- as an exception rather than the rule. 

Having your student reach out to a teacher can be advantageous. They may be able to shed light on where the student is struggling, suggest resources, and even help clarify confusing material. Additionally, advocating for themselves in this way will not only serve them well in college but also may help build relationships with teachers who may be writing letters of recommendation. Work on refining study skills or consider a study group if your student has studious friends in their classes. Working with a tutor can also be a possibility.

Don’t forget the rest of the application

Grades are the most important part of the college applications process, but they are still only one of the five factors in your control. A transcript works to place a student in the range for a given college or university. However, for many students, once they have reached that point, they are then competing with other students with similar grades and rigor. In those moments, other elements of the application assist an admissions officer in making a final decision. Ultimately, approaching grades, rigor, and course selection with knowledge about how an admissions officer will perceive them and what you can do is a recipe for success.