How do College Admission Officers Review High School Transcripts?
At first glance, the college application process can appear beyond daunting for most students and families. One of the best pieces of advice I can give families is to take a deep breath and start breaking the college application process into more manageable milestones. If I’m describing the process, I’ll usually list the following pieces:
High School Transcript
Letters of Recommendation/Counselor Letter
Financial Aid Documentation (FAFSA/CSS Profile)
For this blog post, I want to focus on the high school transcript. Amongst all the different pieces of the college search and application process, the high school transcript is arguably the most important. A student’s choice of courses (of those available to them) and their performance in those courses are generally considered the best measurements of their academic college readiness. With so much emphasis placed on grades and course selection, it’s only natural that the importance of academic performance becomes a major source of stress, anxiety, and conflict within most homes.
For this blog post, my hope is to dispel some common myths and misconceptions around the high school transcript’s role in the college application process. To accomplish this, I’m going to break down some of the most common ways that colleges and their admission offices analyze, interpret, and consider a student’s high school transcript.
What is a High School Transcript?
The theoretical purpose of a high school transcript is to create a singular document that explains a student’s academic performance in their classes during their time in high school. What this looks like in actuality is a 1-2 page document that lists all courses a student has been enrolled in during high school, followed by some evaluation of their performance.
I intentionally used the word “evaluation” because not all transcripts evaluate a student’s performance in the same way. Even within the United States of America, the format a high school uses can vary widely between states, districts, counties, and individual schools.
Most readers will likely be familiar with the idea of grades, a system that places a student on a scale of A-F, (although strangely skipping over E). Even within an A-F grading system there can be quite a bit of variation. Some schools only have a singular letter, “A”, while other schools might provide gradations of a letter such as “A +” “A” and “A -”.
To make matters even more confusing, these letters are often tied to numerical measurements (typically 100-0), but those measurements can also differ from high school to high school. Lastly, whichever grading system a high school uses often ties to a 4.0 scale, but many advanced, AP, or IB courses can increase a student’s GPA beyond the 4.0 scale!
As you might have gathered by this point, 10 different high schools could produce 10 entirely different transcripts. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. I’ve made a rudimentary chart below to show how confusing this system can be with only a few factors.
High School Transcript Review Process
As established in the previous section, high school transcripts can be informationally dense and confusing documents. The review process of a high school transcript heavily depends on how the individual college or university reviews applications. There are some colleges that manually recalculate your GPA while others might not even see the original document. Unfortunately, not all colleges are forthcoming with how they choose to review and interpret a high school transcript. For the remainder of this blog, I’m going to present some ways that colleges might utilize an applicant’s high school transcript during the application review process.
Table of Contents:
Grade Point Average (GPA)
A student's grade point average (more commonly known as GPA) is the average score of a student’s high school courses. High school transcripts typically indicate a student’s weighted and unweighted GPA.
Unweighted GPA: An unweighted GPA is typically on a 0.0-4.0 scale and averages all grades from across the transcript.
Weighted GPA: A weighted GPA means that some courses (AP, IB, ADV, HON, pre-IB, Dual-Enrollment, etc.) have been deemed more rigorous and thus given a boost to their GPA. While a typical course might be rated on a 0.0-4.0 scale, a weighted course will often give a +.5 to +1.0 boost to a student's GPA.
Standard College Prep Course: A+ = 4.0
Advanced/Honors/pre-IB High School Course: A+ = 4.5
AP or IB High School Course: A+ = 5.0
Amongst all the pieces of the college application, GPA is almost universally considered the most important piece of the admission decision process. A student with a 4.5 GPA and lackluster essay, activities list, and letters of recommendation is more likely to be admitted to colleges across the board than a student with a stellar activities list, essay, and letters of recommendation with a lower 2.5 GPA.
Why do colleges consider the GPA so important?
Colleges and universities at their core are educational businesses. Many of the metrics and long-term plans for a college are built on a foundation of academic achievement. Four years of quantitative academic insights are going to be the most likely indicator of a student’s ability to succeed, and therefore remain, in the classroom. Students unable to meet the academic standards of a classroom are more likely to fail, delay graduation, transfer, or withdraw from the college altogether. These kinds of negative outcomes could ultimately affect a college’s rankings, damaging its marketing, brand awareness, budget, recruitment efforts, and general support from consumers. Admitting a student who won’t academically succeed ultimately hurts the college, student, and any stakeholders in the decision process (parents, high schools, college counselors, independent educational consultants, etc.).
Rigor of Courses
After reviewing the general academic performance of a student through their GPA, most admission officers will review the rigor and difficulty of the courses a student took. Rigor, in this context, means that a student is pushing themselves to take the most challenging courses available to them. Two important points on the idea of rigor in the college application process:
The most common examples of rigor in the college application process are advanced courses. These courses can take many shapes including, but not limited to, advanced, honors, dual-enrollment, advanced placement, and international baccalaureate. These are the same courses that tend to overlap with adding weight to a student’s GPA. Because advanced courses demonstrate rigor in the classroom and boost the GPA, taking rigorous courses can be one of the most helpful ways to create a strong college application.
Not all schools have access to advanced courses. Many high schools around the country do not offer any additional rigor beyond their standard curriculum. Some high schools elect not to offer advanced courses very intentionally. Other high schools do not have the financial or professional bandwidth to offer advanced courses.
I know several families who fear their students might be at an unfair disadvantage because their high school has limited access to rigorous courses. The good news is that whether a high school willingly or unwillingly forgoes advanced courses, the admission counselor should review the application within that context. High schools often send a “School Report” attached to all of their students’ college applications. This school report provides insight and context for a high school’s curriculum to help admission readers make more informed decisions. School reports, professional knowledge of their territories, and legacy institutional knowledge are often combined to give admission officers the best contextual understanding of an applicant.
Why do colleges care about the rigor of courses?
As mentioned in the previous section of GPA, success in the classroom is of paramount importance to a college. College courses can range in difficulty, but generally speaking, the average college class in America will be more challenging than the average high school class. With this in mind, colleges emphasize rigor because students taking more challenging courses will likely be prepared to face the rigor of a college-level course.
Rigor also offers a tentative solution to one of the most frustrating aspects of high school transcripts, standardization. No two high school curriculums are the same and no two high school teachers are identical in their teaching/grading styles. One difficulty that colleges face is trying to discern how to compare grades across the thousands of high schools in the country. In theory, adding a standardized credential to a high school course helps ensure that two students in different high schools work equally hard to earn their respective As. In a perfect world, this was the intended use for standardized tests (ACT, SAT, etc.). Standardized exams in AP and IB courses allow for a national ranking of a student's competency in those subjects across high school boundaries. If both students get As in their class, but one scores a one out of five on the AP exam while the other student scores a five out of five, then that is added context to help admission officers make difficult admission decisions.
Many people are aware of the impact GPA or rigorous courses can have on a college application. Unfortunately, far fewer people are aware of the impact that academic trends might have on a college application. What is an academic trend? An academic trend is when an admission officer can identify a pattern within a transcript to provide insight into a student’s performance. Based on my experience, this is often the third lens that an admission officer will utilize to view a high school transcript. There are a few common ways that academic trends might be utilized in the application review process:
Overall GPA Progress: The easiest academic trend to observe is the Overall GPA Progress during a student’s time in high school. This is done by looking at each quarter/semester’s individual GPA and comparing them over the duration of a student’s high school career. Reviewing an overall GPA can showcase a few notable trends:
Strong Trend: The most desirable GPA trend is a Strong Trend, consistent high performance across all academic subjects throughout the entirety of high school.
Rising Trend: While a Rising Trend starts low, it shows consistent improvement and hard work to perform better academically over time. Rising trends are often associated with two scenarios:
A strong student that who struggled with the transition to high school academically, socially, or personally.
A student that was not thinking about the long term impacts of their GPA, but realized mid-way through high school that their GPA will significantly impact admission and scholarship offers.
Dip Trend: Students who encounter a significant roadblock during their education will likely show a Dip Trend. The Dip Trend often indicates that a student struggled during a specific portion of their high school career. Categorically, dips can occur at any point during high school except the first semester (a student needs to have a starting point to dip). Dip Trends are most commonly found in the middle of a high school timeline and can be associated with transitioning to more rigorous courses, difficulty with a particular teacher, or a non-academic event that impacts academic performance.
Slump Trend (aka the Senior Slump): No downward motion on a grade trend is good, but the Slump Trend holds a particularly infamous place in the college admission profession. A student might display a Slump Trend if they started high school strong and then gradually declined in performance over time. A Slump Trend might indicate an inability to perform in rigorous courses, a general disinterest in academics, or a student losing the battle with senioritis. A Slump Trend combined with a less rigorous or weak course load for senior year can often lead to the dreaded scenario of colleges rescinding their admission offers.
Trends in Rigor: After analyzing the Overall GPA Trends of a transcript, admission officers are likely to look at Trends in Rigor next. Ideally, a student is taking challenging courses within their high school curriculum to best prepare them for the academic rigor of college. Most high schools will slowly increase the rigorous opportunities for students from standard courses to advanced/honors/pre-IB and then AP/IB/Dual Enrollment. Equipped with context from the School Report, an admission officer should be aware of how many, if any, advanced courses students should have access to. The best advice that I can give to students is to take the most rigorous courses that you can do well in without adversely affecting your physical or mental health.
Trends in Subjects: Lastly, it isn’t uncommon for admission officers to spend some time reviewing a Trend in Subjects. Reviewing trends amongst academic subjects can often help provide more nuance for transcript evaluation, especially when the student is looking into a particular course of study.
Some colleges might not care as much about academic subjects that a student isn’t interested in. The English and Social Science courses of a student applying to Electrical Engineering will likely not have as big of an impact as the student’s performance in Math or Science.
Alternatively, some colleges pride themselves on unique curricula which might require all students to have common competencies. Colleges that have writing-intensive curricula might more heavily value performance in English and Social Science.
When thinking about transcripts, there are several aspects that students have control over (performance, schedule, rigor, etc.), even if it might be limited by their high school. However, once a college receives a transcript, they are free to manipulate it to their specifications. When a college modifies a student’s high school transcript it is often referred to as a Recalculated Transcript.
How do colleges recalculate transcripts?
A college might only consider “core subjects/courses” when reviewing high school transcripts. This means that the college will remove any courses from factoring into the GPA if they don’t categorize them as a “core subject/course”. Most colleges will consider English, Math, Social Science, Science, and Foreign Language as core classes. This means that electives, art courses, and physical education requirements are often removed from the equation.
A college might remove the weighted GPA of advanced courses. This means that if you took more rigorous courses, they will still be relevant, but the GPA will not receive any weighted boost from those advanced courses.
A college might not look at one or more years of a high school transcript. This choice could be based on an institutional policy (ex: California State Universities do not consider 9th grade). Colleges might also give certain years special consideration if an unforeseen event has caused mass academic problems (ex: COVID).
Why do colleges recalculate transcripts?
As mentioned in the previous “Rigor of Courses” section, standardization is an enormous concern in the college admission profession. If high schools across the country aren’t able to standardize themselves, colleges will often take the initiative to standardize transcripts within their office. Most of the time, the goal of the admission office is to create a more equal consideration for all applications.
Some colleges are doubtful of how heavily some high schools might weigh advanced courses. For example, if two students both get As in AP European History, but respectively score one and five on the national exam, do they both deserve the added weight of that course? While the AP curriculum provides a standardized national test, they have no control over the weighting or grading of each individual classroom.
Colleges might also seek to “trim the fat” of a transcript that has been bloated by courses they deem as less rigorous. Common courses that get removed are any electives not tied to a high school’s core curriculum (ex: arts, physical education, performing arts, yearbook, etc.).
At this point, you should feel confident in critically analyzing your high school transcript and understanding how it will be used during the college application review process. Next time you look at a transcript, think about how you would consider it as an admission officer. Identifying the GPA and rigor of courses might be straightforward, but what trends are you seeing? What narratives can you derive from a high school transcript? Are those narratives accurate or not? Can you mitigate or proactively address concerns in other pieces of the application?
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors