Admissions: it’s all about the grades

While published last year, this post got a slew of views and a few comments, so back to the top it goes:

As an admissions officer, I love hearing about all the SECRET WAYS TO GET INTO COLLEGE. These generally focus on some lame way to send your application, or some special club you can join, or worst of all some company that you pay a fortune. There’s never any evidence that any of that works, other than a story about somebody who got in at some point by sending in their application that way, joining that club, or forking over that fortune.

The reality, unfortunately, is really boring. Here it is (you might want to sit down for this): It’s all about your grades.

That’s really about it…except that when I say “grades” I really mean your whole academic record. To start with, colleges are much more interested in grades in your core academic courses: Math, science, English, social studies, and/or foreign language. Every time I say that someone asks, “but what about band.” I usually say, yeah, maybe, if you’re seeking admission to a music conservatory…but mostly it’s the core academic courses. Usually the same kid (or more often, parent) jumps up and says, “but it’s HONORS band!” Yes, I get it, and no I’m not picking on band, since the question is just as often about debate, art, or a few dozen other courses that I’m sure are very rewarding and interesting. What they aren’t is your core academic courses, which is what admissions offices use. (Updated note: when I originally posted this I got some nifty hate mail from band members – that’s not the term I used, but whatever. For the record – I was in bands, lots of bands. Played the drums. Marched in the Macy’s Parade, won some trophies. Clearly, I’m not hating on band – but, also for the record, that doesn’t mean I don’t think having classes in Band labled “Honors” – and even worse given extra weighting on the grading scale – isn’t silly. Let the new round of messages from angry band members begin!)

To get an idea of your overall academic potential, still generally focusing on those core subjects, we look at trends in your grades (up is better, although best of course is to have stayed up all the way through), the quality of your courses, where you rank, the quality of your high school, etc. etc. All of that is factored, to one degree or another, by admissions officers to get an idea of what kind of student you are, and likely will be in college. That evaluation accounts for the VAST majority of your admission decision.

Of course we know that not all grades/high schools/courses are the same, so I’ll go into detail about that in a few days (or so). Be seeing you.


22 Responses

  1. GPA is king!

    I have a student right now who is struggling with the ACT, but has a 3.9 unweighted core GPA. I give them a high five every time I see them because they have so many options and have worked so hard for those options.

    I see too many kids who realize too late that they could have put more effort into grades. Way to spread the word…

  2. What a completely unique concept. What’s next, pay raises for hard working employees?

    I loved the “Honors band” remark!

  3. I love your article, but you might want to go into the witness protection program to protect yourself from the Admissions Consultants that charge tens of thousands of dollars to help students get into the schools of their choice. If it really is about the grades, these consultants just might be out of a job….

  4. As an independent college consultant, I’m actually thrilled to see Dean Flagel promoting GPA as often as he can. Grades are extremely important and students need to hear about their importance from as many voices as possible.

    Yes, there are a few college consultants who charge tens of thousands of dollars to help kids get into Ivy League schools, but the majority of us spend our time helping kids find a good match. We don’t promise to help students get into colleges they wouldn’t get into without us…

  5. And while there are some scam artists out there, and folks who just want to increase the hype and stress to feed their business, I’ve worked with dozens of independent counselors who were vital members of the college process, especially those that do tons of work free for students from under served populations that otherwise would be unlikely to get individual counseling.

  6. Exactly! One of our main goals is to help students understand the process. Many of the low-income students I work with are shocked to find that they have college options outside of the city they live in.

  7. I have got 3.16GPA – grade, B-maths,B-Business studies & D-Economics. So can this grade be considered as an average grade? Will this grade get me into fairly good colleges?

  8. Sumit – 3.16 at some schools is in the top 25%, others barely in the top half, and still others is considered a very weak GPA – in otehr words it will depend on the context.

    Your math grades are the most important, while I doubt most will care about your grade in Business studies. Econ is a toss up, but generally any ‘D’s are perceived very negatively by application reviewers.

    In terms of “Fairly good” – that all depends on your perspective. There a lot of open enrollment institutions that are far better, in my opinion, than “fairly good” – t al ldepends on whether you’re talking profile of entering students, bragging rights, or what atmosphere will be suited to your success.

  9. I’m a very intelligent girl who made bad decisions in high school. I was in foster care all my life and really never had anyone tell me that education was important. Students really need that these days. It helps a lot to be educated on how doing good in high school is the key to get into college. I knew nothing about college and fell for the bad crowd. My math, algebra, geometry, history, science grades rose when I was a junior in high school because I finally said that I was better than the bad crowd. That’s when I had gotten 5 A’s! Wow! I finally got accepted to VUU and my parents didn’t let me go. I cried because that was the only college that accepted me. So I went to a community college But other things happened in my life that caused me to not do my best in college. After I accepted that my dad was dead, I have to go back to college and focus. That’s the only thing I want in this world and I think that’s a great thing that I at least want to go. I know I won’t get accepted to any colleges that I want to succeed in but Im going to try anyway. At this point I don’t care what university I attend. I will do my best at any school. You only feel that campus life only once and I don’t want mines to past me by. I have huge goals in life and Im very talented in writing and accounting. I understand how admission representatives determine their decision. Its only based on their grades right? But what happens to an intelligent woman like me who just had horrible upbringings?

  10. Well first of all I am sorry for the loss of your father. Though Sabrina when you were given the choice to go to VUU you should have gone! I know that you were probably pestered by your parents about going but this is your life and you are the only one that can make these crucial decisions. I can see that you have had a hard life, and it angers me to see another rocked child from our country’s poor foster care system, but you can’t give up! Go back to a local community college for about a year and strive to get good grades! Talk to VUU or some other college that you would like to go to (and that you know you would have a good percent chance of getting in) and tell them about your problems and what you can do. They will tell you because they want to help! Don’t worry everything will workout if you really try!

  11. Okay, I was just wondering if I qualify for Mason’s honor college. I have a 91.8 weighted GPA or a 3.67 at my school. My guidance counsler said my unweighted would probably be a 3.5 (I took a lot of honors classes). My SAT were a 1730 and my ACT composite was a 24, but my math was a 27 and my writing was a 25. I’ve done a lot of activites and I am active in my school. I really like GMU. Would I qualify academically?

    • Of course…it depends. this year our average honors student looks like a 3.95 and a 1400 (on the math and English – I’m not a fan of the writing test – more on that elsewhere in the blog). The scores are FAR secondary to your academic record, as I explained everywhere, and academic record can’t just be boiled down to a simple number – it’s grades in specific courses, trends, schools – really everything. We admissions officers need to keep the decisions complicated, otherwise the universities could just replace us with computers.

  12. i have a 3.70 gpa.. top 10% of my class.. very high course rigor…1990 SATs… what general tier of colleges am i looking at?

    • Chase, it’s just not that simple. You can find a huge range of schools where your stats fall within their range, including some of the most competitive – but again, scores are a smaller part of the equation, and the academic record is complex evaluation – not just a GPA but based on everything hat I listed above. In addition, college admissions officers work hard to keep this information fairly vague so as not to discourage lower profile students that they really want, and not overly encourage high profile students that they don’t. More on that later today.

  13. Lots of my teachers have been telling the students that our school is very easy in the grading system. How can you tell what schools the admission conselors consider difficult and easy? Right now I have a 4.0 GPA, weighted and I just want to know if I only received that because the classes weren’t challenging.

  14. I attend a very competitive High school that has a strong focus on the core studies as well as medical studies. I only have a GPA of a 3.3 does the profile of my school come in account with admissions.

    • Profile does count, but it’s difficult to say how much, especially without knowing details on your school. Check out the post I’m about to put up for a bit about what its all so confusing.

  15. I went to a band concert the other night at South Lakes and heard, once again, ‘BAND is VERY IMPORTANT to your child for college. It tells the college that they know how to work with a group, be committed, etc. etc.” My husband and I looked at each other, dropped our voices low, and said, “but what if it’s HONORS band?” and then laughed. You see, WE had been to your night at SL! It was fun to hear the band director do the predictable thing. Oh…and yes, we were there for our 6th grader’s AREA band, but he wants to go to USAFA, so no worries about honors or otherwise band!

  16. I am a soon to be sophmore that is looking for any scholarship I can get and want to get into a DI, II, III school at least. I am a soccer keeper that starts varsity and i am a violinist and violist that has gotten into southern state orchestra. I am also arguabley the best artist in my grade. I even find time to participate in clubs like S.T.O.P. I am a very talented person in all subjects BUT im not sure that i could get a full scholarship in soccer if i recieved a C in honors geometry this year (in all marking periods but one of them) and im moving down to CP this year. If I get all As in all my other classes (except a B for 2 semesters in honors biology) will that geometry grade be much of an liability to a scholarship opportunity? And what are my chances of getting a scholarship? Also, how much do colleges care if you are in honors (or AP) history? Thank you so much in advance

  17. […] Admissions: it’s all about the grades […]

  18. I have a low GPA 2.88 and on my transcript there will be a D in Chemistry. I have brought this grade up to a C+. I am a very hard working student that has struggled in one subject. Will my bad grades in Chemistry affect how colleges view me in the admisson process? Lastly which do colleges look at more your semester grade or your final grades?

  19. Does GMU(George Mason University) requires a TOFEL from an immigrant like me? I advanced ESOL classes in High School.

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