What Grades Do Colleges Look At?

Student looking at her A+ mark in the exam
November 13, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 7/27/22

Which grades do colleges look at the most? If you’re wondering how colleges will evaluate your transcript, read on to learn more! 

If you want to attend a top college, exceptional grades can help you get accepted. But the question is: what grades do colleges look at? Simply put, the answer is all of them.

Colleges use your unofficial transcript to review your final grades. It’s always a good idea to maintain a steady and high GPA throughout high school if you want a high cumulative GPA by graduation. This article will explain which grades colleges look at year by year. 

The Grades Colleges Look At

When starting high school, you must take classes in each of the five core subjects: 

  • English
  • Math
  • Social Studies
  • Science
  • Foreign Language

Your core course results are grades that colleges look at: you can count on it. But in what grade do colleges look at your grades? The answer varies. We’ll break down each year below. 

Freshman Year

While they don’t prioritize them over your junior and senior grades, some colleges look at your freshman year grades. It’s not bad if you don’t do your best in your first year. Admissions officers understand that students need time to adjust to high school life and the workload that comes with it. 

The next three years are your chance to improve and work on your studying habits. Even if you received impressive first-year grades, don’t stop there. Continue earning excellent grades until you receive your acceptance letters. Your academic transcript tells your story of academic readiness for college, and your first year is your headstart. 

If you’re thinking about working on your timetable, you should talk with your guidance counselor about creating the best schedule possible. Ensure you take courses at the right times, and identify if you struggle with course material. If there are subjects you struggle with, now is the best time to find remedial help or improve your study habits.

Sophomore Year

College admissions usually tend to be less understanding when viewing low grades in your sophomore year. Your sophomore, junior, and senior years foretell your academic ability to succeed in college.

Colleges will look at your sophomore grades, whether it’s to see if you maintained an acceptable GPA or improved from the year before. Getting a headstart with strong grades and challenging school work alongside extracurricular activities can make all the difference when you reach your senior year.

Since your sophomore year is when you can take AP classes, you should plan for any courses you want to take in your junior and senior years. That way, you can sign up for prerequisites for those courses or, if you feel that the prerequisite was enough of a challenge, refrain from taking those particular courses in your final year.

Junior Year

If you’re wondering what year colleges look at your grades, junior year is what really matters. When you apply for college in the fall of your senior year, your junior year transcript will be the recent ones available to colleges. Your junior year grades are essential: it’s the grade a college will look at most, along with your senior year. 

Your grades predetermine your academic performance for your final year. Your GPA and the “sturdiness” of it matters. If your grades have improved dramatically from your previous years or display continued excellence, it shows your college readiness. 

Consider taking high-level classes such as: 

If you’re unsure whether to take higher-level classes, consider this: receiving a B+ in an AP class is just as impressive as receiving an A+ in a regular class. Most high schools used a weighted scale for high-level courses: you could potentially earn a GPA higher than 4.0! 

Senior Year

Your senior grades are the final puzzle piece for college admission officers. Having outstanding grades in your first semester positively impacts your application. Senior grades substantially affect your cumulative GPA and can help you get off the waitlist if you happen to be placed on one. 

Colleges consider your fall and final semester grades even if you’ve already received admission; that’s how much your final year grades matter. 

Early Acceptance and Early Decision 

If you plan on applying for early acceptance (EA) or early decision (ED), your dream college might decide to admit you solely on your junior year grades. However, some schools request your first senior year semester grades before making the final decision.

If you apply to other schools through regular decision (RD), you may receive an admissions decision before other schools receive your grades. If you are accepted via ED or EA, you are bound to attend that school and cannot reject your offer. 

Applying EA or ED is ideal for students with a clear top choice. Your chances of acceptance could increase; ED acceptance rates are generally higher at most institutions than RD. 

What Are Colleges Looking for in Your Grades?

Infographic outlining what colleges are looking for in your grades

Colleges have many reasons for evaluating your grades, mainly to evaluate academic excellence. However, they’re not just looking for high grades and impressive test scores. The grades that typically matter most are those from your core academic courses. Sometimes, colleges may ignore the grades from your elective courses. 

Your GPA may muddle the results a bit too. A 4.0 GPA is excellent, but many colleges recalculate your GPA according to their own metrics. Here are some other things colleges look for besides your GPA. 

Grades in College Prep Courses

Along with the grades colleges look at, Most colleges prioritize good grades in college prep courses, as it predicts your ability to handle rigorous curriculums. Even if you struggled in your first year, colleges would still favor your advancement and improvement in AP classes.

Strength of Curriculum 

Colleges accept students who have taken challenging courses and performed well in those classes. Don’t worry if your high school doesn’t offer AP classes: admissions officers will consider that. However, if you still want to make an impression, you can pursue the most challenging curriculum available to you. 

AP Exam Scores and Admissions Tests

If you apply to a more selective college, however, you should also focus on achieving high AP exam scores. The College Board’s AP exam table shows the college course grade equivalent for each score: 

Table outlining the college course grade evquivalent for an AP score
Source: The College Board

Your SAT or ACT scores are also crucial if the college requires them. Hiring an expert SAT or ACT tutor can help you achieve the best score possible.

Grades in All Courses

Your cumulative GPA indicates your academic success in high school. Your transcript gives colleges a glimpse into your academic performance and shows whether you made efforts to enroll in honors or AP courses if they were available to you.

Are Grades All That Matter for College?

The grades that universities look at are a huge component of your applications, but they aren’t the only thing that matters. Some colleges don’t even require SAT or ACT scores anymore either. 

When applying to colleges, other factors can help increase your chances of getting accepted. It’s crucial to show your personality in your application, as it shows that you would make a great addition. 

It’ll help if you come across as capable, hard-working, and kind. Some other things that colleges tend to take into consideration are as follows. 

Other factors that colleges consider for admission

Extracurricular Commitment 

Colleges focus on your involvement in your community and extracurricular activities. Admissions committees consider how long you’ve dedicated your time to such activities and how they align with your interests and passions. Extracurricular commitments can include: 

  • School clubs 
  • Out-of-school clubs
  • Sports involvement 
  • Volunteer work 
  • Community service projects 

Consider the impact of your activities on yourself and others. Remember to select activities because you actually want to do them, not just because they’d “look good” on your college applications. 

Letters of Recommendation

Many colleges require you to provide recommendation letters from sources such as: 

  • Teachers
  • Counselors
  • Supervisors at work
  • Volunteer supervisors
  • Coaches
  • Other adults (you aren’t family) that can speak about your character

Recommendation letters are necessary because they offer insight into your academic and professional abilities, character, and personality.

An Essay or Writing Samples 

Some colleges may require you to write and submit supplemental essays. This is an opportunity for you to creatively show your personality. A well-written essay can make or break a college’s decision to accept you.

Demonstrating Interest 

Showing your commitment to getting into a college can be exemplified by showing interest in the campus. Attend events open to the public or high school students, take a tour around the campus when you get the chance, and accept the interview if offered to make a good impression. 

Class Rank

Colleges evaluate class rankings to compare you to other students with similar opportunities and resources. Like all other college admissions factors, class rank shows your academic capabilities. Many admitted students accepted to top universities rank in the top decile of their class. 

FAQs - What Grades Do Colleges Look At?

Still have some questions about what grades colleges look at? Here are some general questions that can better give an idea of which grades colleges care about. 

What if My Grades Were Poor in Freshman Year but Improved by Senior Year?

That would be great for you! Colleges like to see improvements in grades, as it shows you’re willing to study hard and better yourself. 

Would I Have Time to Boost My Senior Grades by My Final Semester in High School?

If you haven’t applied through early decision or early action, it’s not too late to boost your grades. However, you may not have enough time to dramatically boost your GPA. 

What Can I Do if My GPA Is Low in Senior Year?

If you feel you can’t improve your GPA, you may want to consider a gap year. You can take an extra year at your high school to do better and apply the next year. This goes for poor extracurricular activities and disciplinary problems as well. 

Do Colleges Look at Specific Courses I Take?

Unless they have specific guidelines, your core course grades are what schools look at the most. However, grades that colleges look at could include your elective courses: it depends on the school. 

Should I Focus More on My Grades or My Extracurricular Activities?

It would be best to balance out both. Grades are important, but extracurriculars are crucial as well. However, don’t let your grades slip by taking on too many extra commitments. 

What Grade Does a College Look At Most? 

Colleges see all your grades, but they tend to look most at your junior and senior years.

Do Colleges Care if I Retake a Course I Failed?

No. Retaking a course and earning a better grade boosts your GPA and may replace your failed grade. Colleges want to see if your grades are good enough to be accepted onto their campus. Retaking a course to better your grade is worth the chance, although colleges will see that you retook a course. 

Do Colleges See All My Grades?

If you’re wondering what grades colleges see, the answer is all of them. Your official transcripts contain every course you’ve taken. 

Final Thoughts

Now that you know which grades colleges look at, you understand why maintaining a high GPA is critical to your success. Colleges advise high school students to be in good academic standing and try their best. Through planning, studying, and time management, you can earn an impressive transcript by your senior year. 

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