Updated: Nov 22
There is no question that the landscape of higher education and specifically, college admissions, has been momentously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of colleges and universities across the United States observed an influx of applications in 2021 with the volume of their applications jumping up by 11%, some even up to 21%. Standardized testing such as the SAT and ACT - a de facto requirement across the vast majority of institutions - were quickly made optional, providing students who may have found standardized testing to be a barrier with an opportunity to submit their best application based on the quality of their performance across high-school grades.
Do Grades Matter?
Grades have been an essential component of college admissions since the beginning, demonstrating to admission officers across the country a student’s capability to succeed at their particular institutions. Day in and day out, a student’s ability to dedicate the required time and effort to do well in their high school courses and build good study habits has been shown to be the best predictor of their academic performance later in college. Over 81% of colleges and universities surveyed in 2017-2018 by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) agreed that grades gave “considerable importance” in their admissions evaluation. Public opinion of the significance of grades in admissions decisions follows similarly, with 61% of Americans saying it should be a major factor and 93% of Americans saying it should at least be a minor factor in admissions decisions. Unlike standardized tests, grades demonstrate academic performance in subjects over time and are less impacted by situations such as test anxiety, test center distractions, and lack of exposure to testing format and structures that can greatly influence a student’s ability to execute in a singular moment.
The Nuance of Grades
It is clear that excellent grades are important; however, academic performance is always evaluated in the context of the curriculum rigor and, if available, a student’s demonstrated specialty (i.e. intended college major). A high school may offer a variety of curriculum offerings, ranging from standard and advanced courses to honors to Advancement Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) offerings. Some schools may offer only 5 or 10 AP or IB courses, while others have over 20 such courses in their curriculum. Admissions officers are trained to consider the context of each high school—what their curriculum looks like, the percentage of students going to 4-year colleges, and other factors—and for the most part, evaluate students in the context of what is available to them.
When offered, students taking AP or IB courses are essentially receiving credit for college-level courses while in high school. As such, they are considered to be taking the most rigorous course load available in that subject. Students taking the highest level of academic work across the fundamental areas of English, Science, Math, History, and Language are observed to be taking the most rigorous course load available to them. Admissions officers will look more favorably on a student who has received a B in an AP course over a student who has received an A in a standard course. The effort and initiative to challenge one’s self (and do well) in advanced college-level courses is desired and bodes favorably for a student’s success once at college.
A student’s demonstrated interest in a particular college major or track can also affect how college admissions perceive their grades and transcript. For example, a student who attests to have an affinity for Computer Science and who wants to work in the tech industry will be expected to show high achievement in those areas. Success in Advanced AP or IB level courses in Math and Science will be more or less required, especially in a student’s junior and senior years. At Solomon, our college admissions consultants coach students on course selection and planning that is related to their strategy. Prior to confirming high school courses each year, students (and their families) should consider:
What are the most rigorous courses offered at my high school each year?
Which subjects come more naturally to me? Which require more effort?
What is my positioning strategy? Where do my academic interests fall?
A reflection on these inquiries can help students navigate their high school curriculum with more intention. A successful college admissions strategy begins in 9th grade, with each year acting as a scaffold for the next.
A Note About Standardized Testing
At Solomon, we describe to our students the three most significant aspects of academics—grades, academic rigor, and testing. The impact of grades in college admissions is difficult to consider wholly separately from the other two. While test-optional admissions have been growing in popularity across institutions, providing test scores as additional data is still highly recommended. Grades and grade point averages (GPA) are known to be widely variable, with GPA scales and weights varying across high schools. In contrast, standardized tests—while not without their issues— are still considered a far better control variable when comparing student applications. When applying to colleges and universities, it is important to read carefully their respective testing policies. Some may look more favorably on test-optional. Others, like Harvard University, more clearly state that test scores are usually better predictors of success [at their institution] than high school grades.
A successful college admissions strategy begins early and requires some contemplation. Students should maximize their learning opportunities in high school, focusing on content mastery and challenging themselves through demanding coursework. Complex and often overwhelming, the college admissions process can feel less daunting with the help of a college admissions consultant who, among other things, can share with families a unique lens into how admissions offices will review transcripts and evaluate grades. Our consultants are among the very best in the business. Contact us to find out how we can help!