What’s a Good Academic Record for College Admissions?

Your Academic Record is the Most Important Part of Your College Application.

When it comes to what college admissions counselors are looking for, there’s a lot of emphasis on extracurricular activities, but a student’s academic record remains the most vital part of his or her college application.

Aside from getting good grades, what can a student do to strengthen their academic record? Below is a breakdown of how college admissions counselors read between the A’s and B’s to determine what kind of a future college student they’re looking at.

Core Subjects

The primary focus of your high school education should be the core subjects: English, math, science and social sciences. If you’re not performing well in these classes, it won’t matter how many A’s you get in elective classes like gym, music or cooking.

Some high schools will list a student’s weighted GPA, giving more credit for harder classes. That is why some students can earn a 5.0 GPA. Colleges tend to focus on the unweighted number, which eliminates elective classes that can inflate the numbers. This gives them a clearer picture of your performance in the areas where it matters, and helps even the playing field for students who attended high schools that don’t have as many electives or advanced classes.

Most selective colleges also require you to have fully covered the core subjects. The requirements vary from school to school, so make sure you know if the college you’re looking at requires two or three years of science. In general, most institutions of higher education require four years of English, three years of math, two years of science and two years of history or social science.

Those are the minimum requirements, but admissions counselors can tell if a student has only fulfilled the bare minimum. If you’re hoping to attend a competitive college, you should plan on an additional year of math, science and social science each.


Of the four core subjects listed above, math is an area where students have the opportunity to show some extra initiative. Most colleges and universities only require three years of math. But taking a fourth year shows you are a serious student who doesn’t shy away from challenging courses. Most students should plan on completing math classes through calculus.

Proficiency in math also indicates that you have strong skills in problem solving, organization and critical thinking. These are the kinds of traits that apply to all areas of study and show admissions counselors that you are ready for the college level.

Foreign Language

As our culture and economy continue to globalize, speaking a foreign language is becoming more and more important. To put it simply, you can’t get into a selective college or university without foreign language skills. Most schools require two or three years in a particular language, but as always, this is just the minimum requirement. Students who complete a full four years of foreign language will look much stronger.

It is also important to specialize in one language and study it in-depth. Admissions counselors are not impressed with students who study three different languages but don’t advance in any of them. Some schools will accept a strong AP score as fulfillment of the language requirement, but you should always check the admissions guidelines, as policies can vary from school to school.

Challenging Classes

Take challenging classes in high school. This demonstrates that you are a motivated and curious student looking to excel academically. If a student earns a 4.0 GPA by only taking the easiest classes and electives, admissions counselors will see that on the application. On the other hand, a student who is constantly challenging him or herself might graduate with a 3.8 GPA, but still have a stronger academic record overall.

If your high school offers Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or honors classes, take advantage of them. These classes not only look great on your college application, but they are essentially college-level classes. Students in these classes are better prepared for the quality and quantity of work expected in college, especially when it comes to writing.

Another huge benefit is that AP and IB classes can often be transferred as college credit. If you score a 4 or a 5 on your AP national exams, those classes will count towards your college requirements.

Some high schools don’t offer AP or IB classes, but most have honors and advanced classes of some type. If this is the case, take advantage of whatever your school has to offer. Admissions counselors will see that you pushed yourself to succeed, even with limited resources.

College Credit

More and more, high school students are earning college credit early. This can be done in a number of ways, including AP and IB classes, described above.

Some high schools are partnering with local community colleges or other schools to allow high school students to attend college classes directly. There are many benefits to this. First, you’re getting college-level experience ahead of time. Most students find this makes the eventual transition much easier. When you start college full-time, you won’t be surprised by the workload or the quality that is expected.

Early college credit is also very impressive on your application and will improve your chances of getting into a better school. Most four-year colleges have lots of requirements for graduation, leaving little wiggle room for exploring other subjects. Having some of your credits fulfilled will give you the flexibility to pursue a double major, a minor, or even graduate early and save on tuition.

Senior Year Schedule

While the admissions process takes place in the middle of your senior year, that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods just yet! Admissions counselors won’t be able to see your senior-year grades, but they definitely look at your class schedule to see that you’re still pushing yourself academically. That is why it is important to keep taking advanced classes if they are available. It’s also a good idea to add that fourth year of math, a foreign language or another discipline of science. In some cases, a severe drop-off in classwork can result in admissions decisions being overturned.

With all the academic requirements in high school, students only have so much freedom to shape their schedule. How they choose to do so is very reflective of what kind of college student they will become.

Upward Trending Grades

Just as a senior-year drop-off in academic performance sends a bad signal, upward trending grades are a big positive. Some students struggle with the transition to high school and the trials of teenage years. Some just don’t develop good study habits until they have a little practice at it.

Poor grades in the first years of high school will weaken your record, but not as much as during your junior and senior years. If your grades continually improve throughout high school, admissions counselors will be encouraged that you’re on the right track.

Remember, admissions counselors are evaluating your application to get a sense of where you’ve been and where you’re going. They will look at how you chose to spend the last year of high school to see whether or not they think you’re taking the next step towards college.

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