What you need to know about Admission Deadlines

Yes. I understand it’s summer and just hearing the word “deadline” is annoying at best. Congrats on just opening this one up.

Yes. I have heard you are supposed to title articles “Top 5 Things…” or “Do’s and Don’ts about…” in order to get clicks, improve shares, and entice readers and drive analytics.

Yes. I realize an entire blog about “deadlines” likely falls into the same bucket for most teens as texts or reminders about cleaning bathrooms, writing physical thank you notes, and getting up early for no particular reason on a Saturday.

So, if you happen to be reading this by a pool or ocean or in some other lovely setting, feel free to stop now and simply bookmark this one, or put it into a subfolder titled “college admission,” “crap someone forwarded me,” or “stuff I’ll read later.”

But a few promises since you are still with me. First, I promise I’m not asking you to do anything specifically right now. Second…actually, there is no second. Let’s just boil this down to the basics.

Here is what you need to know about admission deadlines.

  1. Deadlines are about Institutional Priorities.  If the term Institutional Priorities sounds familiar, it is because we have covered these talking about mission statements and admission decisions. Colleges have goals for their size of class, shape of class, and profile of class (academically and financially).

The truth is application deadlines are driven by the same philosophy- how and when students apply is 100% about helping schools achieve their mission.

Example: The University of California System, which includes some of the nation’s best public universities, has an application window between November 1 and November 30. Is that time period the most student- friendly for kids from some parts of the country or world in which November is the most academically intense? Nope. But the deadline exists because it works for the California System schools. Period.

As my friend and colleague Pam Ambler from Pace Academy here in Atlanta says, “The way admission decisions feel (read: emotional and personal) is not how they are made (read: all about a college’s goals and priorities).” You can put deadlines in the same bucket.

2. Deadlines are about competition.

I’m guessing when you are considering colleges, your focus is on distinguishing one from another and determining if you are a good match or fit for that place- and it should be.

Colleges, however, are very concerned about one another. They compare size of class, academic and geographic profile of class, as well as admit rates, yield rates, and so on.

We are not going to go down a rankings rabbit hole today, but suffice it to say boards, presidents, and systems are extremely cognizant of what the others are doing in the higher education ecosystem, and the decisions of one often impact many. You’ve seen this play out in the test optional conversation very publicly in recent years.

The bottom line is colleges set their deadlines with a keen eye toward who they currently are, or aspire to compete against.  If you are a sports fan of any kind, none of these actions or thought processes surprise you.

Example: If a school provides students the opportunity to apply in the summer before senior year, or well before most schools set their deadlines in October and November, you can be assured they have traditionally been losing students to other colleges and their deadline/timeline to apply is now set in response to the desire to win more. How? Because if you apply early and that school begins doing interviews or ultimately gets an admission decision out well in advance of other colleges, they can court you earlier and longer than their competition.

There is nothing wrong or nefarious about this. And there are benefits to getting an admission decision back early and knowing you have options. But where does that deadline come from? A direct competition strategy to increase academic profile, likely financial profile (less needy students tend to apply earlier), and potentially also decrease admit rate while increasing yield—because if they get earlier commits, they can admit fewer students later in the cycle.

3. Deadlines are about Financial Aid

Most people don’t think about how admission deadlines directly relate to financial aid and the cost of enrolling a class. Instead, most articles center on Early Decision and whether it is abusive, ethical, or how to strategize around it. (But most articles don’t start by acknowledging their titles suck either now do they?) The timing of admission applications absolutely impacts the way schools dole out aid, as well as the amount they have at various times of year to enroll their class.

Example: If a school has an Early Decision deadline, as well as multiple additional deadlines (ED I and II, plus EA; or EDI and then months later another ED opportunity; or ED, EA, another oddly titled deadline, etc.), you can be sure they are both need and profile aware. In other words, they are attempting to receive early commits from students who have the financial ability to pay, even if they forego later applicants who have a higher academic profile.

1+2+3= Admission Deadlines, A Case Study

This is fresh on my mind right now because at Georgia Tech, we recently set our first-year admission deadlines for next year.

  1. Institutional Priorities: As you can see, our Early Action I deadline is established for Georgia students. Why? Because as a public school, Georgia students are a priority for Georgia Tech. Although only 20% of the students who apply to Tech are from our state, 60% of undergraduates hail from the Peach State.
  2. Competition: Our number one overlap for in-state students is the University of Georgia. As a result of increasing application volume, the size of our admission team, and the holistic review process we use, we were releasing admission decisions in mid- January. This not only put us behind UGA, but also several weeks after most of our Top 10 overlap schools as well. Adjusting our EA1 deadline allows us to release Georgia student decisions prior to the Winter Break.
  3. Financial Aid: Our Regular Decision deadline is in early January. Is this the most optimal time for students? No. For many reasons late January or even early February would be my preference. However, due to application volume, staff size, and a holistic review process, we set our deadline in order to be able financially package students in a timeline more closely aligned with other colleges.

What does this mean for you?

First, deadlines matter to colleges, so they need to matter to you. As we have just established, they are set for a reason– and that reason involves money and competition. Hopefully that gets your attention.

Second, they allow you to plan. Again, as promised, I’m not asking anything from you right now. But if you are going to need teacher recommendations submitted, or a transcript sent, or test scores delivered by a certain point in the cycle, you need to get the deadlines for admission and financial aid of the colleges you are applying to on a spreadsheet or some other workable document– because deadlines breed deadlines.

Third, the timing and names of schools’ deadlines, i.e., ED, Priority, Restrictive, etc., are reflective and indicative of their goals and priorities. You could do some deep digging into Common Data Sets or look over the history of particular schools and how the timing and naming of their deadlines have shifted, or you can just trust me. Take some time (not now, not now) to understand your options and think/ask/read about how those deadlines will ultimately impact admission review and decisions.

So, there you have it- a blog about deadlines. Never thought I’d write one and would be curious to hear what you think about this and other topics. We are beginning to plan out our blog and podcast schedule for the fall, so reach out @gtadmission or in the comments section of our podcast with suggestions and feedback.

5 Years of Advice for Seniors Making A Final College Decision

If you are a senior admitted to multiple colleges and trying to make a final choice, this blog’s for you!  

I totally get this decision may feel overwhelming. Nothing I can say is going to eradicate that emotion or provide you with complete clarity. So why read on? Because in times of uncertainty it’s helpful to seek collective wisdom and perspective. But if you read only one more sentence, remember this: a life well-lived, a “successful” life, and frankly a life of freedom and joy, is typically one filled with choices and options. You’ve earned the right to make this decision. Celebrate that!  

Listen, I know you are busy. You’ve got lots going on outside the classroom at the end of the school year, you’re likely getting ready to take AP/IB/Dual Enrollment exams, and there’s inevitably other tasks or obligations in your life that make reading a blog just one more thing. So… I’m going to keep this brief and not attempt to recreate the wheel.  

Instead, I did the heavy lifting by going back over the last few years to synthesize advice, tips, and other resources on how you can make this decision… and do so with solace and confidence. So, my friends, with no further ado, here’s the way back machine on final college selection (cue the psychedelic music and wavy, colorful lines on a screen). 

 2021 

Going a bit meta here as this one is sort of a best of within the best of. Further demonstration that I don’t have all the answers (far, far from it), but I try to learn from those around me who have more insight and experience. This one features a who’s who including Nicole Hurd, Tevera Stith, Adam Grant, Jeff Selingo, my friend and co-author Brennan Barnard, and the imitable Angel Perez.  

Key Quote: Nope. Impossible. Too many pearls of wisdom. Read the entire piece.  

2020 

Who doesn’t love a Top 10 list? Our Associate Director, Andrew Cohen wrote a real gem here on ways to make a final decision without physically visiting or re-visiting a college. While this came out at the very beginning of the Covid pandemic, his advice is just as relevant now since most students don’t have the time or resources to revisit all of their college options.  

Key Quote:At the end of the day, whether you visit a campus or not, you need to trust your gut. You can read websites, watch webinars, and scroll social media, but at the end of day you will have a feeling and need to trust yourself. You know yourself best! You will have that “aha moment,” at some point this year.”  

2019 

Be honest- when you see the numbers 2.0.1.9., there is that brief thought of, “MAN. That seems like a lifetime ago.” Well, friends, this one starts with a scene out of Hitch featuring Will Smith, so it’s not just you….  

Key Quote: “Options and choices can feel overwhelming, but don’t forget that THIS WAS THE GOAL! This decision is not a burden—it is a privilege. It is a blessing. THIS is why you visited schools, researched colleges, and applied to more than just one place. THIS is why you took tough classes, studied, worked hard, and sat through multi-hour standardized tests—to have choices, to have options. You are EXACTLY where you wanted to be! You did this to yourself—and that is a great thing!” 

Bonus: This one includes a 2 hour + playlist of songs our staff recommended to play as you are deliberating. It’s free and pretty diverse in genre. So, whether you need to go for a long walk or lay on your bed and contemplate your options, we’ve got your theme music covered.   

2018  

Yes. I wrote this one from a cemetery in Argentina, but don’t be dissuaded, it’s far more optimistic and lighter than the setting may connote. Note: I acknowledge there are multiple antiquated references to Facebook, but otherwise plenty of relevant advice on making a decision, including advice for students on waitlists.  

Key Quote: “This is the first of many times you’ll experience these types of choices with relationships, jobs, grad school, moving to a new city or state or country. The truth—there is no right answer. The school you pick is going to be great because your job, starting today and going through this summer, is to fully commit.” 

2017 

Apparently, we figured that class had it covered as it appears we did not write a blog on final selection tips this year.  

2016 

It’s about football and ice cream. If you like either of these, you’ll enjoy this one. If you don’t like either…, who are you?  

Key Quote: Pretty sure we nailed it with the title “Ice Cream is the Answer!” So go grab a pint or gallon and a few spoons and figure this thing out, people.  

Honorable Mention: At the end of the day, the decision you make on where to go to college is not going to determine the rest of your life, contrary to what someone has inevitably told you or what the press will often purport. Instead, it will be the decisions you make in college: the grades you make, the internships you pursue, the network of friends, professors, advisors you create. Those will dictate your trajectory, your success, and your options, and ultimately your contentment in college and life beyond.” 

Five years, friends. Hopefully, you’ll find a few helpful takeaways. If not, I’m going to suggest a coin flip, a dartboard, or letting your little sister pick for you. There you have it…everything AND the kitchen sink.

Good luck. You got this!

Here Comes the Sun: A Parent’s Perspective on Deny

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This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission for the Mid Atlantic, Kathleen Voss, to the blog. Welcome, Kathleen!

Rick Clark, I actively AVOIDED your previous two blogs about messages for parents of students applying to college.  This was very hard for me to do, as I am huge fan of your blog and a huge fan of you.  This morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee and, even with 200 applications sitting in my queue, braced myself and sat down to read all about the mistakes I have made.

You see, recently this whole “parent with a child in the college search” thing has become a real drag… and I want to send it and your blog to a place where the sun doesn’t shine!  I say this with the greatest admiration, respect, and love for you Rick, but on Friday my daughter received her first “deny” from a college.  Now I find myself in uncharted waters. The gate was closed on the gatekeeper’s kid…. and it stinks!

Becoming “That Parent”

As much as I hate to admit it, in that instant I became THAT parent.  I am 100% more disappointed than she is. Before you ask, of course I did not let her see my disappointment. I checked my emotions, took a breath, and said, “It’s their loss.”

While we both anticipated this result (my enrollment manager brain crunched the numbers weeks ago), I could not get it out of my head that this college was a great fit for her. The proximity to home was perfect. She could realistically start on day one as an Admission Office tour guide because she knows so much about the history of the institution.  We have a close relative who is recent graduate and has so much in common with my daughter. I LOVED THAT SCHOOL!

We are in the last lap of this search. DANG IT! Remember your PRONOUNS!!!!  My DAUGHTER is in the last lap of the college search process. SHE is waiting to hear from a few more schools. She seems to be dealing with everything well…. even the deny. She is calm and reasonable. After living with a college admission counselor for 18 years, she seems to have absorbed my trade craft.  She recognizes what she can and cannot control in the process. She feels confident that she put forth the best applications that she could. She spent time on her essays and only asked me to look over her final draft.  She has and continues to work hard in high school, though senioritis is starting to creep in. Sounds like a dream, right?

So why do I feel like I have been hit by a Mack truck?

I’ve had hundreds of conversations with students and parents about the reasons behind Tech’s admission decisions.  I have comforted, counseled, and moved on. I get it…  at least, I should get it. “It’s not you, it’s me.” Rick’s blogs make perfect, reasonable sense. This feels personal– but it’s not.

I hurt for my daughter and this first taste of rejection. And selfishly, it stings for me and my ego.  No, I am not planning to follow anyone into a parking lot to ask “why?” and I won’t be calling our Governor (he clearly has his hands full right now).

But there is value in seeing both sides of the same coin.

Another Challenging Year 

It has been an incredibly challenging year for our admission staff.  A fair number of us in the office have kids who are juniors and seniors in high school.  We all read applications from students who remind us of our own: a shared birthday or hobby, similar family dynamics, the same senior schedule, a common class that was especially difficult. When we open these files, we can’t help but think, “I sure hope the admission counselor at XYZ University is REALLY looking at all of my child’s amazing qualities.  I hope they aren’t too tired, and they really READ her essay, recommendations, and activities.”

While we face every year with professionalism and rapt attention, this year, we senior parents have been laser focused on ALL those holistic points, searching for answers, double checking our work, and willing our colleagues at other schools to do the same for our kids.

Add to this seeing so many young people being put through the absolute wringer during Covid.  I have read more essays about trauma, grief, depression, and anxiety in the past four months than I have in my entire 29-year career.  It has been heart breaking. The respect I have always had for my colleagues in school and college counseling offices across the nation has increased 1,000-fold. If we are seeing this volume of stress in applications, I can only imagine how it must impact their daily lives.  Then we add having to deny applicants during an already really challenging time.

But we do it. We must. We have over 50,000 applications. We will deny more than half of them. And by the way, that half is amazing, like my daughter, which makes it all the harder. Supply and demand. Mission driving admission. All valid and logical, but this year especially, it is a part of the job that just sucks.

It WILL Be Okay

If you know me, you know I am a positive person, and there is no way that I can write a blog that starts with me being insubordinate to my incredible boss and ends with me almost swearing. So, let me end on a high note: to the parents reading this, it will be okay.  Whether your child was denied at YOUR first-choice college, or THEIR first choice, it will be okay.  It has been a joyful, emotional, and eye-opening ride and I have newfound perspective and patience.

As the end of this amazing college search is in sight for my family, I’d like to recognize and give gratitude to the following.

West Virginia University, you were the first school to admit my daughter.  I can still see the excitement on her face when she opened that email. We sang “Country Roads” at the top of our lungs. I am so impressed by your communications. They are warm, welcoming, and positive!  You seem to intuitively know the questions that we have at any given time.

Providence College, you hosted a FANTASTIC open house. I know how much work went into that event and you did it with grace and style…. and SNACKS!  You made my daughter feel welcomed and comfortable from the start.

Barry at Pitt, in the middle of a record-breaking season, you took the time to reach out to me and answer my questions. I am grateful to you and can’t wait to sit on a panel together IN PERSON once again.

University of Rhode Island, thank you for recognizing my child’s talent and success.  I whole heartedly agree with your assessment of her!

Eli Clarke I am grateful to you for your wisdom, friendship, and support and for your amazing Tik Tok @mr.c_collegecounselor, which offered my daughter and so many others exceptional advice throughout the process.

WHS Counseling Staff, I don’t know how you do it. This has been such a wild and intense year for you. Somehow you have managed to balance crisis management, mask wars, and 1,000 other things you do in a day and still make yourselves available to help students with their college search questions. I SEE YOU!

Rick Clark, for your great insight, which, even in the throes of disappointment, is calming and rational and brings us back to earth.  Maybe we could just forget that I wanted to stick your blog in a sunless place?

Kathleen Voss has worked in college admission for over 25 years. She joined the Georgia Tech Office of Undergraduate Admission in 2013 as the Institute’s first Regional Director of Admission. Prior to Tech, Kathleen worked regionally for Manhattan College and as the Associate Director of Admission for Regis College in Massachusetts. She is a member of PCACAC and serves on the Admission Practices Committee. She enjoys spending time with her husband and two daughters and volunteering in her community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Messages Parents of High School Students Need to Hear About College Admission

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I am getting older. I know this because I now bring a mini-massage gun with me when I travel; my pant legs neither tightly hug my calves nor end an inch above my ankle; and when I buy wine at the grocery store the cashier either does not card me or goes back to scanning items when I confidently reach for my wallet (plus, hey, I’m regularly buying wine at the grocery store).

I’m not sure if you are also experiencing this, but my kids are getting older too, as are their parents. So, with each passing year, I’m getting more texts, emails, and calls from friends about college and college admission, and over-hearing both discussed frequently at games or other events.

While I did write an entire book on this subject, I feel like I owe my friends more than simply texting them an Amazon link. Plus, I understand not everyone is up for reading 200+ pages. But after watching this cycle repeat itself for over two decades (use of “decades” being another “getting older” give-away), I’m convinced there are a few messages most parents of high school students need to hear-and hopefully will listen to also.

Pronouns Matter. As your kids enter and move through high school, and especially as they are applying to college, I hope you will be cognizant of your pronouns. If you find yourself commonly saying things like, “We have a 3.8,”Pre-Calc is really killing us this year,” or “Our first choice is ___________,” it may be time to take a long walk, a deep breath, or a stiff drink. Ask yourself if those pronouns are just a reflection of your love and years of intimately intertwined lives, or if they are a subtle prodding to step back and let your student demonstrate what you know they are capable of handling.

As you well know, parenting is a delicate dance that becomes increasingly complicated as kids get older. Be honest with yourself and pay attention to when its time to take the lead or step back. Interestingly, it was current Atlanta Mayor (and former Georgia Tech staff member) Andre Dickens who introduced me to the concept of moving from parent to partner with a presentation he used to give at new student-parent orientation. And that should be your focus as your kids move closer toward graduation from high school.

As a parent, I understand this is not easy. But don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal. “College Prep” is not simply about academics, and we should be focused on ensuring our kids are socially, emotionally, and practically prepared, regardless of where they end up going to college. Watching your pronouns is a great place to start.

College admission is not fair. However, in contrast to what most people think, it is easy to understand. Admission is driven by two fundamental rules:

  1. Supply and demand. The Applicant to Class Size ratio drives admit rate. If applications go up and enrollment does not, the admit rate drops.

This is why you hear about Younger Sibling not getting into University of X (Home of the Fighting X’s) with the same, or even better high school grades and classes, than Older Sibling (a current junior at X with a 3.4 GPA). Three years have passed, U of X’s new first-year class size is the same, but this year they receive 5000 more applications than the year Older applied. Could Younger do the work? 100%. Is Younger talented, ambitious, and very interested in going to University of X? Without question. Is this fair? Nope, but it is logical.

  1. Mission drives admission. As we just established, Older is a good student and a good person (3.4 GPA in college and very active on campus). But three years ago, when she applied as a high school senior, there was another candidate vying for admission—Applaquint. “App” had better grades, better classes, better writing, and more community involvement (all the things U of X says it values) than Older. App, however, was denied.

Why? Well, it happens that App is from Y (the state just to the east of X). Because University of X is a public school, students from the state are admitted at 5 times (would have been too confusing to say 5x) the rate of non-Xers. Fair? No! Again, App is smarter, nicer, and better looking than Older. But again, totally logical.

College brochures may make all campuses look the same, but the goals for the composition of their classes vary widely in number, geography, major, gender, and so on. So when admission committees discuss candidates, they are reviewing and considering GPA, essays, and letters of recommendation,  but ultimately institutional mission and priorities are the lens and filter through which admission decisions are made.

As a parent, my sincere hope is you hear, believe, and prepare yourself for this truth- neither an admit nor deny decision is a value judgment or evaluation of your job as a parent. My friend Pam Ambler from Pace Academy puts it perfectly: “Admission decisions feel deeply personal, but that is not how they are made.” As a result, many parents react when their student receives disappointing admission news. They see that hurt and think they need to call the admission office (or the president or the governor), appeal the decision, “come down there,” or pull strings. After watching this cycle repeat itself over and over, 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, in these moments what kids need from you is very simple—love, concern, empathy, belief, and encouragement, or sometimes just a heartfelt hug.

College Parents > HS Parents. When your kids were little and you were struggling with potty training or getting your baby to sleep through the night, did you seek advice and insight from other parents in the same chapter? No! Because they were either a: just as clueless or frustrated as you were b: maddeningly oblivious c: prone to lie, exaggerate, or hide the reality of their situation.

The same is true when it comes to college admission. Other parents with kids in high school often have just enough information to sound informed but frequently serve to proliferate inaccuracy and consternation– “You know the valedictorian three years ago did not get into….” and “It’s easier to get in from (insert high school three miles away), because they don’t have IB like we do.” Generous generalizations and liberal rounding phrases like, “he has mostly As and Bs” or her SAT is “around a 1400″ should send your BS radar way up in cases like this. Walk away, my friends. Dismiss, change the subject, and don’t let those comments stress you out. 

The bottom line is parents of high school students should talk to fewer parents of high school students about college admission, and more parents of current college students, or recent college graduates. These folks, who are one chapter ahead, invariably provide perspective, levity, insight, and sanity. They are far less prone to exaggeration, and in fact often incredibly raw and honest in their evaluation. “She was crushed when she did not get into Stanvard. But now she’s at Reese’s U and is not sorry.” Or “We didn’t get the financial aid package we needed for him to go to Enidreppep University, so he ended up at QSU. He graduates this spring and already has a great job lined up with the company where he’s been interning.” Again, seek perspective, levity, insight, and sanity from parents of current college students, and spend your time talking to parents of other high school students about the upcoming game or recently opened restaurant in your area.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. And stay tuned for upcoming podcasts and blogs with a few more key messages for high school parents coming soon…

If you have friends who not won’t read 200+ pages, but are likely not even ready 1000+ words, you can send them to my original Twitter thread with these messages for parents. 

Holistic Academic Review: More Than a GPA

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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.