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We know that a student’s Grade Point Average (GPA) is the most influential driver in the college admissions process. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) State of College Admission 2019 report, the top 3 most important factors in admissions decisions all relate to academic performance in school:

However, we also know that GPA is not standardized, and various methodologies are used to calculate it, so admissions officers like University of Virginia admissions dean Jeannine Lalonde, aka DeanJ, make it clear that important context is required to truly understand and interpret GPA.

So, what context matters most?

For one, rigor.  Admissions officers want to see that—regardless of the school’s curricular or grading system—the student has taken the most challenging courses available.

But there’s another factor too, a lesson obvious–but very important–one: growth over time.

As parents and/or educators of adolescents, we accept one truth universally acknowledged: adolescents are imperfect beings rapidly developing skills—both academic & social-emotional.

Admissions officers realize this too, and it’s even reflected in admissions policy, like University of California schools policy of omitting freshmen year grades when calculating high school GPA. The value of a student’s GPA is that it demonstrates academic performance over time (not just in one isolated moment), so you look for a trend, a positive trajectory of growth & improvement in performance. In particular, you want to see where the student is trending recently, as the student approaches college readiness and entrance.

In a recent interview, Jeffrey Selingo, who spent a year in three different colleges’ admissions offices when reporting for his book  Who Gets In and Why, explains the importance of performance trend:

“Admissions officers are looking for grades that are either consistently good throughout high school or on a steady rise from the start. What concerns them is a downward trend or where grades are all over the place.”

As college admissions policies increasingly shift towards a “holistic” review, that is, one which seeks to be less reductive and more inclusive of context, admissions officers are reading for a narrative of the student’s development.  It’s an Aristotelian exercise of sorts: reading for potential, imagining the completed sculpture already present in the marble block.

In all of this, there is one important message for students, especially as they enter a new year and a new academic term: grades tell a story, and the student is the author of that academic narrative. Make it one of steady rise, of consistent growth predictive of something wonderful developing rapidly—and recently—out of that marble block, something that others become eager to see.

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