Holistic Academic Review: More Than a GPA

This week we welcome Assistant Director of Admission & Digital Media, Samantha Rose-Sinclair to the blog. Welcome back, Sammy!

It’s that time of year! For new goals and resolutions? Perhaps. For feeling recharged after time off from work and school? Hopefully. For a crisp 3-inch blanket of snow draped across the ground? Maybe, but in Atlanta probably not. 

 For “How’d Emily get admitted with a 4.4 and John get denied with a 4.7?” Absolutely. Given my digital media work for our office, I’m privy to chat threads that start just like that, all the time. This time of year, those questions are on especially heavy rotation as “Chance me with a X.XX GPA” turns into “I was admitted/denied/deferred with a X.XX GPA.” So, all other elements of fit and the holistic review process aside (Which is no small “aside”, but my colleagues have written lots of great blogs on the matter) let’s talk about the limitations of using, and comparing, transcript GPAs alone as a decision indicator in holistic admission.  

The impact of weighting, and extracurricular courses 

Many schools use weighted GPAs to add extra point(s) to their more rigorous courses- AP, honors, etc. Essentially, the aim is to create a grade point that not only factors in a student’s performance in a class, but also the difficulty of the class. 

 Let’s say a school gives one extra grade point to AP courses (So, an A in an AP is five grade points, compared to four in a regular course). Emily and John both take two AP courses, and both get As for grade points of five. Emily has early dismissal at the end of the day, which she uses for her internship. She doesn’t get a grade for it. John is particularly interested in science, and is taking an anatomy course he’s enjoying- it’s offered at a regular level, so his A gets him four grade points.  

EMILY Classes Letter Grade Grade point 
AP Calculus A 5.00
AP Biology A 5.00
Early Release—Work  
AVERAGE   5.00

 

JOHN Classes  Letter Grade Grade point 
AP Calculus  A  5.00 
AP Biology  A  5.00 
Anatomy  A  4.00 
AVERAGE    4.666 

 In the short example above, both students received all As, both students used their time productively to explore additional interests, yet Emily’s average is a 5.00, John’s average is a 4.67.   

As the “A” in the abbreviation suggests, GPAs are just averages. They don’t give the context of what courses a student took, and how that impacted the final number. Here’s the good news: in holistic review, context is everything. Using your transcript to unpack your full course history and performance gives far more insight into your academic preparation than the GPA summarizing that performance.  (Video version, if you prefer)

The impact of non-universal school scales and curriculums 

In the above example, I gave you the scale by which the school weighed GPAs. When admission counselors review transcripts, we’ll typically have grading information available to us from a school report, school profile, or on the transcript itself. Out in the wild of various admission forums and chats with neighbors/friends/your great aunt’s second cousin… you won’t have that information, yet, it’s critical to understanding the ranges of GPAs typical at a given high school. A few weighted 4.0 scale examples: 

School One: honors get .5 points added, APs have 1 point added. The highest grade awarded is an A+. They offer 34 honors courses and 29 AP courses and do not limit the APs a student can take. Valedictorian has about a 4.9 

School Two: again, honors get .5 points added and APs get 1 point added. The highest grade awarded is an A. The school offers 18 honors courses and 22 AP courses, students are limited to taking 1 AP sophomore year, 3 junior and senior years. Accordingly, GPAs tend to average lower than School One, the valedictorian has about a 4.5 

School Three: Honors and AP courses are both weighted with two points, accelerated courses are weighted with one point. In the spring of 2020, all passing grades were marked as As, which is the highest grade awarded. There are no limits on weighted courses. Valedictorian has about a 5.6.  

There are an infinite number of curriculums and grading scales, there is no universal standard across United States school districts. The above hasn’t scratched the surface on 4.0 models, let alone 100 point models, 6 point, 7 point… you get the idea. When you see Emily on Reddit’s admission decision with a 4.4 and you’re curious what it means for you, it’s a fruitless comparison. Or perhaps fruit filled, as a 4.4 at her school is likely apples and oranges to a 4.4 at yours. Terrible play on words, sorry. 

apple and orange on a scale

Unweighted GPAs and the impact of rigor

In an unweighted GPA model, there’s no extra weight added to coursework, each course is factored into the GPA based on points for performance alone. Emily and John are both interested in aerospace engineering, and took the following schedules this year:  

EMILY Classes  Letter  Grade point 
AP Physics  A  4.00 
Calculus  A  4.00 
Honors English  B+  3.3 
AVERAGE    3.766 
JOHN Classes  Letter  Grade point 
Underwater Basket Weaving  A  4.00 
Precalculus  A-  3.7 
The Art of Napping  A  4.00 
AVERAGE    3.9 

At first glance, John’s earned a higher average than Emily, with a 3.9 compared to her 3.77. But all naps that I took in college aside…who has the stronger academic preparation for college-level coursework in aerospace engineering? I’ll let you make that call.  

The impact of performance over time and subject  

When looking at the transcript, admission reviewers can see patterns in course choice and performance. Where did the student perform their best? Which subjects did they challenge themselves in? And, how did they perform over time? We also may receive information from the student or school providing insight on circumstances that impacted a student’s academics. We may find upward academic trends (improved grades as a student progressed) or downward trends. In other words, while Emily and John could have a similar GPA, one might have had lower grades in 9th grade, while the other, in 11th. We know juniors are tired of hearing this, but given that they represent the more advanced coursework that you’ll build from in college, those later courses and their grades tend to matter more. All in all, the transcript tells a story of academic fit through the lens of your growth, strengths, and interests, which isn’t quite captured in a single number.   

So why does this matter? If you’re waiting on admission decisions, it can truly be stressful reading other students’ stats and trying to anticipate what it means for you. The reality is, those numbers are entirely devoid of the context—academically, and the additional context of holistic application review that we’ve sidelined for now—that they were made in. And so, I encourage the academic equivalent of “don’t judge a book by its cover”. While I know it’s tempting to try and find signposts hinting at a decision as you wait, my hope is that armed with this understanding, you can save yourself the headache and heartache of comparison and keep your sights on your own path, and your own accomplishments in this new year ahead.

Applying to College Isn’t Like The Movies

Listen to the Podcast: Spreaker | Spotify | Apple Podcasts

This week we welcome current Admission Digital Media Student Assistant Sarah Engel to the blog. Welcome, Sarah!

This admission blog has long been written by experts in application evaluation, the admission counselors themselves. But they’ve always hoped you would seek out additional voices in your college admission experience as well—students who can share the culture and community of their colleges as they experience it every day, who can provide been-there-done-that support and encouragement as you navigate the college admission experience. And truly, as a current college student, and the first to write on this blog (no pressure!) I can echo the importance of those lived perspectives. I know first hand that when you’re actually in the midst of gathering your materials, writing your essays, and sending them off to colleges with the click of a button, it can all seem a little…surreal and disconnected. Not only do you have academic and social pressures from your friends and family, you likely have your own, internal expectations and media driven perceptions that hover over you like a dark storm cloud. 

Press Play

Growing up, I recall seeing countless teen rom coms and dramas in which the protagonist is somehow accepted into a prestigious university. Serena van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl being admitted to Brown University despite never attending class? Aaron Samuels from Mean Girls getting into Northwestern despite not understanding calculus? And, of course, the entire cast of High School Musical committing to Ivy Leagues, Juilliard, Stanford, and UC Berkeley? Not once did I see them studying between musical numbers in the gymnasium!

Disney family singalong: Zac Efron joins 'High School Musical' reunion

Now, in the age of social media, we are constantly exposed to “Reacting to my College Decisions” videos of shrieking students surrounded by family members, deserving student stories on Good Morning America being posted across Twitter, and congratulatory Instagram posts for friends committing to universities. As exciting as these seem, I know from experience how they can affect one’s mental health. The neverending stream of collegiate content across the internet, film, and television puts an invisible weight on the shoulders of students to perform well. Audiences (myself included) love the satisfaction of a loveable character embarking on a new, happy journey. But how realistic is the journey really? And what does this fascination with college in the media mean for real students applying to real schools?

Take a Pause

Spoiler alert: life isn’t always like it is in the movies (seriously, how do characters have so much time to hang out before they go to work and school in the morning?) and social media isn’t all that realistic either. When your admission experience looks different from everyone’s social media highlight reel, and Disney’s happily-ever-afters, that can feel a little lonely. But you’re not alone. My hope for you is that you’ll be kind to yourself. Check in on your friends, check in on yourself, have honest conversations with each other, and set boundaries. Hey, I work with digital media in our office, and while we hope to provide helpful content to students, I know that muting and stepping away from the screen can absolutely be an act of self-care. Taking breaks isn’t just healthy, it’s necessary.

Fast Forward 

Let’s look beyond the admission decisions: a fast forward through time for you, a rewind in time for me. Though it feels recent, I applied to college over three years ago (how is that possible?!). I remember dreading meetings with my college counselor, stressing over standardized test scores, reading my essays over and over, asking for recommendation letters, and that agonizing waiting period after applying. But then came the spring of 2019, and I was perfectly calm. Excited for the future, researching classes and clubs, planning out my dorm room decorations, and connecting with future classmates on social media. So much has changed for me since then! What hasn’t changed, however, is this truth: that, after the dust settles and the whirlwind of admission hype and headlines is behind you, what’s in front of you is an opportunity that’s yours to embrace. The keyword here is embrace. You may receive many admission decisions in the months ahead, ranging from exciting and surprising, to disappointing and… “you mean to tell me I have to send them more information?!”  The admission decisions themselves may not be yours to make, but choosing how you move forward, is. 

When I was a freshman in high school, I dreamed of going to a liberal arts college in the northeast. Perhaps Yale University, like Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls), or NYU, like Lara Jean Covey (To All The Boys I Loved Before). I thought, with my grades and extracurriculars, I’d be able to get in anywhere and everywhere, that I would live out the dark academia aesthetic of my dreams (a la Harry Potter). But by the time I was touring and applying to colleges, that fantasy seemed so far away. I had to face a reality check somewhere around junior year. I realized I wasn’t getting many scholarships at private, out-of-state schools. I also came to understand that I didn’t want to be all that far from my family. That I could always revisit the liberal arts school dream for graduate school. 

As colleges prepare to release decisions in the coming weeks and months, I hope you take away at least this message: it works out. Everything will be okay. Your admission decisions might not be the fairytale ending you first imagined, but that’s because they were never really an ending at all…just the opportunity to embrace a new storyline, whatever it may be. Don’t be discouraged if your fictional hero or heroine is accepted to every school they apply to, or if your best friend got a better scholarship than you. Remember that you are the protagonist of your own story on your own path. It might not be easy, but try your best, and believe me, #ItWorksOut.

Sarah Engel is a third-year LMC major from Dunwoody, Georgia. Her involvements have included the North Avenue Review Magazine, LMC CoLab, Excel Program, German National Honor Society, and FASET. Now, she works as the digital media assistant for the Office of Undergraduate Admission. 

Handling Admission Decisions — A Coach’s Guide

Earlier this week my son played in a middle school basketball game. With two seconds left, he lined up to shoot free throws. He walked to the line, bounced the ball slowly several times, eyed his shot and released. Rattling from the front of the rim to the back, the ball ultimately glanced off the left side of the basket and out.

“AJ! Just take a breath. Relax and take your time,” I heard his coach yell as the opposing crowed waved their hands and pounded on the bleachers.

Perhaps it was just because he’s my son, but I could literally see the air go in and out of his chest as he tried to follow his coach’s instructions. He spun the ball around between his hands and shot…And again the ball caromed off the rim. Before anyone could rebound, the buzzer sounded. Game over.

After the team huddled for a post-game talk, the coach held my son back and put his arm around him. I couldn’t hear his words, but it was clear he was consoling and encouraging. Walking to the car, I decided not to say anything. We drove home in silence for the first ten minutes. Finally, I asked him directly, “What did coach have to say?”

He told me he understands how I feel, and that I will get another chance this season, so keep practicing and keep my head up.

In the weeks and months ahead, thousands of high school seniors will be receiving admission decisions, and even though they were delivered in a completely different setting, I felt like coach’s words are helpful, applicable, and worth repeating.

If you are deferred admission –Wrote about this last December, so you can read more here, but I hope you will not look back over what you could have done differently. Don’t spend time questioning if you should have written on a different essay topic or had someone else write you a letter of recommendation. Look forward not backward. You will get another chance this season. Finish this semester strong, send in your fall grades, and complete any forms or other requirements the school requests.

A defer is not a deny. Instead, it’s a hold on—a timeout to continue the basketball analogy. The game is not over, so don’t act like it is. As an example, 20% of Tech’s current first-year students were either deferred or waitlisted last year. Too many deferred students receive this news as a No, and they take their proverbial ball and go home. You did not apply for this round, but rather for next year. Be patient. Take a breath. Regroup. Shoot your next shot.

If you are denied admission —  I understand how you feel. Not just saying that either, so read this blog and the links within it for some hope, vision, and encouragement. Ok. You did not get in. This particular game is over and the buzzer has sounded. BUT you are talented. You are capable. You have tons of potential and promise. Keep practicing by rounding out your fall semester well and keep your head up!

It’s likely you’ve already been admitted to other colleges, or you soon will be. Maybe you need to spend time this holiday season working on a few more college applications. I understand you wish those free throws would have swished cleanly through the net, rather than rattled around the rim and out, but the long game is far from over. Keep your head up! If you do that, you will see plenty of people in the crowd cheering for you— family, friends, teachers, counselors, and others in your community who know you, love you, and believe in you. Focus on their words of affirmation, rather than the ones on a screen, a letter, or in your head right now.

If you are supporting a student receiving difficult news— Parents and other adults around students who are disappointed or hurting think they need to call the admission office (or the president or the governor), appeal the decision, “come down there,” or pull strings.

After twenty years of watching this cycle repeat itself, and particularly as my own kids grow up, I’ve come to appreciate ALL of that comes from a place of deep and genuine love. But ultimately, I think in these moments what kids (all of us, actually) need is very simple—and my son’s coach modeled this well—love, concern, empathy, belief, and encouragement. And hey, if the words aren’t coming, a heartfelt hug might be best anyway. You got this, coach!

Life Lessons From SNL and College Admissions

There are pros and cons to your kids getting older.  

Pro- No changing diapers or using a snot sucker during the winter (the diaper part was year-round, fyi. Don’t think I was just a seasonal diaper changer). 

Con- No more kids rates/deals on food, flights, or theme parks. 

Pro- Travel is much easier. No stroller or car seats to tote around. And they can carry their own stuff (even if a blanket or stuffed animal may be dragged idly across airport terminals). 

Con- Fewer hugs (So while I usually reserve this line for the end of blogs, if you are student reading this, hug your mama!) 

But perhaps the biggest pro is less animated cartoons and more opportunity to re-watch classic TV shows and movies. Over the Thanksgiving Break we went deep into the SNL Treasure Trove for gems from Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, and many more.

At some point in our turkey-induced stupor, we ran across Hans and Franz clips. I could not recall many lines verbatim, but one I distinctly remembered was, “Listen to me now and hear me later.” When those skits originally aired, I did not grasp the deep truth of that statement, but as a parent it’s becoming my biggest hope for my kids, so I’ve begun using my best faux Austrian accent when I’m doling out life lessons, “Listen to me now and hear me later.”  

Listen to me now

I’m actually hoping you will take that phrase literally- listen to me now (on the blog) and hear me later (on the podcast), because we have covered some great content recently on The College Admission Brief.

Not aware we had a podcast? Yep. Check it out on Apple, Spotify, or Google. With 82 Episodes ranging from admission tips and insight to guests discussing their own college admission journey, we are confident you will find the content timely, relevant, and shareable. AND perhaps best of all, no episode is longer than 20 minutes. Thank you- and you’re welcome! 

Hear me later 

We have had some great conversations recently, so we hope you’ll take some time in the weeks ahead to catch up and share with friends, family, or your school community.

  1. Admission Insights from a Different Perspective, November 22 

Briefly- Tara Miller, Assistant Director of Admissions at St. Mary’s University discusses her pathway from community college to the University of Texas at Austin; lessons learned from working with public high school students for 16 years; and how to uniquely approach and own your college admission experience.  

Key Quote- “Go where you feel supported and appreciated.” As you are weighing your college options in the months ahead, my sincere hope is that sentiment will be a much bigger driver for you than rankings or outside  influences/ expectations.    

Listen For- Tara’s empowering reminder to high school students that they are in charge of their college admission experience- and, of course, “the all you can eat buffet.”  

2. Navigating Admission and Finding Community as a First-Generation College Student, November 8 

Briefly– Dr. Charmaine Troy, First-Generation and Limited Income Program and Operations Manager at Georgia Tech talks about her journey from rural North Carolina to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; how to advocate for yourself and conquer imposter syndrome;  and a message we all need to hear and tell ourselves regularly about so many things in life,  “Don’t let fear stop you!”  

Key Quote- “Don’t let that pride get in your way.” Great advice for all of us, and particularly relevant in the admission experience. Don’t let pride drive where you apply (or don’t apply), where you choose to attend, or your willingness to reach out for help once you arrive on campus.  

Listen For- The importance of being organized, knowing financial aid and scholarship deadlines, and proactively reaching out to members of the university communities you are considering, in order to learn about support programs. 

3. Basics of College Admission 2.0, various dates in August through October 

Briefly- Members of the Tech team tackle popular application topics to provide tips and insight from inside the admission office: Financial Aid; Campus and Virtual Visits; Community Involvement; Essays; and Community Disruption.  

4. Honorable Mention- Is That a Good School? October 29 

Listen For– Approach college admission like a college student: Research (read student newspapers, check out online alumni magazines- plus a great TikTok hack); don’t accept information at face value;  seek multiple perspectives and opinions about the schools you are considering; and change the question to “Is that a good school…for me?” 

5. Best Title of the Year Award- What the Funnel? October 5 

Briefly- A deep dive into the numbers- all the numbers: Admit rates, yield rates, melt rates, BS rates, and many more. Admittedly, a little wonky but if you are looking for a thorough understanding of the machinations colleges go through to enroll a class, this one’s for you. Otherwise, you can wait for this blog/podcast’s distant cousin (WTH), arriving sometime in 2022.  

And in case you listened to me earlier but are just hearing me now—HUG YOUR MAMA!  

College Admission- A Long-term Vision

“I can’t wait to get that extra hour of sleep this weekend!”

“This is great. We can stay up until midnight twice on Saturday.”

“I wish we could ‘fall back’ every weekend, so we could get an extra hour before Mondays.”

These are three statements I heard last Friday at work and at home (Identities have been withheld to protect the guilty).

I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the annual fall back weekend. Unlike most Saturday nights, and to the utter amazement of our kids, I actually watched the entire movie– rationalizing that 11 p.m. was really 10 p.m. But as the credits rolled, I was already dreading Sunday night, aware that for the next few months I would rarely make it home before dark.

If you are applying to college this year, my hope is A: You enjoyed your extra hour of sleep. Sleep is important and most teenagers don’t get enough. B: You will take the long-term, rather than short-term approach to college and college admission.

Look Ahead by Getting Organized/Re-organized Now

If you have not already done so, now is the time to create a spreadsheet with the various colleges you are considering. Application deadlines, financial aid deadlines, separate scholarship deadlines, notification dates, and so on. You can transfer these over to calendar reminders as well but start by visualizing them in one consolidated place.

Create subfolders for each college you are applying to and start unsubscribing from the schools you have ruled out. We took at look at an admitted student from last year and the number of emails we had sent her in March and April alone. I think the technical term was “a crap ton” but the actual number was too large to include here due to character count.

If you think you are getting too much email now, imagine when these schools offer you admission and go into full- out yield mode. Bottom line: make a plan and work the plan.

You Are Applying for Next Year- Not This One

Too many students who are deferred in the fall or winter stop out of the process because they are disappointed, mad, embarrassed, (insert other emotion here), or some combination of all of these. If you liked a college enough to apply early action or early decision, don’t let a deferral in December or January keep you from possibly becoming a student there next August. Hundreds of students in Georgia Tech’s first- year class were either deferred, waitlisted, or received both of those decisions last year.

Obviously, if you get a better offer, or have legitimately lost interest, you should cancel your application. All I’m saying is don’t let your ego or pride keep you from something you legitimately still want to pursue (and that applies to many things in life well beyond college admission, fyi).

Open Your Mind to Different Doors

Even prior to the pandemic, colleges were beginning to offer students different start terms. “Congratulations! We’re excited to inform you of your acceptance to Sample University! We know you’ll love being a (insert ferocious mascot name here). However, in order to join our first-year class, you will need to begin your studies in (insert international city, alternative semester, i.e., spring or summer, online, etc.) Post-pandemic, however, the number of colleges boosting enrollment by offering innovative enrollment options is proliferating. As an example, last summer 20% of our first-year students began their Tech career in June, and over the last two years we’ve started undergraduates in Shenzhen, China and Metz, France. This year we’ll add Oxford, England to the list.

Thinking long-term instead of short-term means you may have to get a passport, wait a semester or two to enroll, begin online instead of in-person, or transfer from another university after a year or two. Take some time now to learn about the options schools you are interested in offer applicants, and ask questions about the benefits, differences in cost or calendar, and other important details.

If you are going to focus on anything immediate, let it be your friends, family, grades, and impact on your community.  You only get one senior year– make yours memorable.

My hope is you will keep your options and your mind open. And enjoy those longer, lighter days that will come as a result.