What Grades Do Colleges Look At? (HS Grades Explained) (2023)

The Grades Colleges Look AtWhat Are Colleges Looking for in Your Grades?Are Grades All That Matter for College?FAQs: What Grades Do Colleges Look At?

What Grades Do Colleges Look At? (HS Grades Explained) (1)

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

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.

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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.

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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:

  • AP classes
  • IB classes
  • Dual enrollment courses
  • Honors classes

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?

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.

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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:

What Grades Do Colleges Look At? (HS Grades Explained) (2)

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.

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.

(Video) No teachers, no tests, no grades. Welcome to high school, run by students

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.


What high school grades do colleges look at the most? ›

Your first year and sophomore year affect your cumulative GPA, which is important to most colleges. However, a solid academic record in your junior year is likely to carry more importance with an admissions committee.

What's the most important grade in HS? ›

Most college admissions committees consider your 11th-grade transcript to be the most important.

What grades do colleges look at senior year? ›

The First Quarter or First Semester Grades

For students who are applying for Regular Decision (as opposed to early decision or on a rolling admissions basis), then colleges will surely request your grades from your first quarter of senior year.

What grades are good enough for college? ›

At minimum, experts say, students must generally meet a GPA standard of 2.0, or a C average, on a 4.0 scale to graduate and remain eligible for federal financial aid. Institutional scholarships and program enrollment at many colleges often hinge on academic achievement above a C average.

What grade do colleges start looking at your grades? ›

Colleges look at grades starting in the first year of high school. As part of their application, students submit a transcript with the grades and GPA from the first three years of high school.

Does Harvard care about 9th grade? ›

Does Harvard care about Grade 9? They look at your overall high school performance which is also including 9th grade, but they don't look at 9th grade specifically. They look at your overall GPA throughout the 4 years.

Which hs year is the hardest? ›

While junior year is often the hardest year of high school, the transition from middle school to 9th grade can also be tough. To make it easier, don't feel afraid to reach out to your teachers and counselors, and take advantage of the support resources that are available.

What is the least important year of high school? ›

Putting freshman grades in context. For colleges, the freshman year is typically the least important year on the high school transcript (they figure you're just trying to find the school every day).

What is the easiest year of high school? ›

Going into high school, many students hear that freshman year is the “easiest” year. Some think that colleges don't consider it as much as they do one's sophomore, junior, and senior years. While this is typically true, it doesn't mean that students should entirely dismiss the importance of their freshman year.

Do colleges look at your 12th grade year? ›

The important thing to know is that colleges do look at your senior year grades. So, performing worse in senior year than in previous grades can impact your application and college admissions decisions.

Do colleges look at 12th grade grades? ›

Absolutely all colleges will see your 12th-grade course lists, your grades, and your UWGPA and WGPA. When you apply to college either ED, EA, RD, or SCREA on the Common App or Coalition App or their own app, you have to provide your course list and your self-reported UWGPA.

Do colleges look at 9th grade grades? ›

Pretty much every college will see your teen's grades from the first year of high school as part of their transcript review. Even universities that emphasizes tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade grades when they evaluate applicants for admission will still see ninth grade marks on transcripts.

Do colleges accept lower grades? ›

Universities may be accepting applicants with lower grades than the requirements – especially if the applicant's grades hold an equal value to the required grades – depending on a few factors, such as the number of places available for the course.

What is the lowest GPA to get into college? ›

Unofficially, 2.0 is the lowest GPA accepted into a standard college, so while there's a chance that college admission is possible, it's not likely at more than a few institutions.

What GPA do most colleges look for? ›

However, for college applicants, the average GPA is more likely between 3.5 and 4.0. If you're aiming for a top university such as one in the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, or others of the same caliber, a 4.0 GPA — or close to it — is expected.

What grades do colleges look at freshman year? ›

And most colleges consider your child's overall high school GPA, meaning the grades they receive freshman year do have weight. But here's the nuance. Many universities follow a “holistic admissions” process, which means they're not simply looking at grades or your child's ACT or SAT scores.

Does college look 8th grade? ›

No, colleges will not look at your grades from middle school. Colleges focus on your grades from high school, which will be shown on your high school transcript. I hope this answers your question! Your counselors probably know more, but generally middle school grades don't impact your college application.

What is the lowest grade to get into Harvard? ›

You should also have a 4.18 GPA or higher. If your GPA is lower than this, you need to compensate with a higher SAT/ACT score. For a school as selective as Harvard, you'll also need to impress them with the rest of your application. We'll cover those details next.

What is the lowest grade Harvard accepts? ›

Answer- Harvard requires a 4.18 to get in. However, they may accept some with a 4.0 as well.

Do colleges look at 10th grade? ›

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.

What is the most failed high school class? ›

Can you name the most frequently failed high school course? It's a subject that students have called “difficult,” “challenging,” and, at times, “torture.” Yes. It's a math class.

What is the hardest math class in HS? ›

What is the Hardest Math Class in High School? In most cases, you'll find that AP Calculus BC or IB Math HL is the most difficult math course your school offers. Note that AP Calculus BC covers the material in AP Calculus AB but also continues the curriculum, addressing more challenging and advanced concepts.

What is the hardest class to pass in high school? ›

  • Physics 1. As one of the hardest high school classes, this course includes not only algebra but also scientific inquiry and physics. ...
  • Environmental Science. ...
  • Chemistry. ...
  • U.S. Government and Politics. ...
  • U.S. History. ...
  • Human Geography. ...
  • European History. ...
  • Statistics.
Dec 17, 2022

What years really matter in high school? ›

The freshman year is the most important year of high school and a crucial chance for a fresh start. Strong students can quickly fall off course if they start cutting classes and blowing off homework.

What are the two most important years of high school? ›

The reality is, all four years matter for kids who want to get into, say, Stanford.
  • Freshman Year. Freshman year is the one that is most often neglected in the college process. ...
  • Sophomore Year. Sophomore year is also extremely important. ...
  • Junior Year. Junior year is about mastering what you've built over the last two years.
Jan 6, 2021

What colleges ignore freshman year? ›

The UC and CSU systems are both ones which say they only look at your grades from 10th grade onwards when computing your GPA. Stanford and McGill are two other schools you could consider looking into as well.

Will one C ruin my GPA in high school? ›

Yes, any grade that is below your GPA will hurt your grade.

What is the hardest schooling to go through? ›

Top 10 Hardest Colleges to Get Into
SchoolLocationAcceptance Rate (Class of 2026)
1. HarvardCambridge, MA3.19%
2. ColumbiaNew York, NY3.73%
3. CaltechPasadena, CA3.92%*
4. StanfordStanford, CA3.95%*
6 more rows

Which grade is harder in high school? ›

The reality is that Grade 11 is, for most, the hardest academic year of high school. This isn't because the content you're learning is so much harder than anything you've learnt before but because you: have more content to cover than ever before.

Do colleges look at all 4 years GPA? ›

GPA's are calculated for about 3 years (up to junior year) and then colleges see your current/projected GPA as you apply to colleges. Making sure you take as many advanced classes or making sure you do well NOW and especially your junior year will help you have a better chance of admission.

Do colleges care about 11th grade? ›

11th grade is the most important year in terms of academics. This is because it is the last grade where colleges will see a full academic year's performance on your transcript - colleges will only see one semester's worth of senior year grades at most.

Do universities look at Grade 11 or 12? ›

Most universities will use your overall Grade 12 U/M grades in calculating your admission average.

What grades does Harvard look at? ›

What GPA do I need to get into Harvard? To be considered for admission to Harvard, you must earn top grades in high school. The Harvard Crimson reports that the average reported GPA of entering freshmen in the class of 2022 was 3.90 on a 4.0 unweighted scale.

Do colleges look at total or 10th 12th grade GPA? ›

What GPA do I use? For the UC's and CSU's you will use your 10-12 academic weighted GPA. For all other universities you will use your 9-12 total GPA, colleges will specify weighted or non-weighted. Where/When do I get a transcript?

Does 12th grade GPA matter? ›

MOST colleges, at least the ones ive looked at, only look at 10th and 11th grade gpa. they'll likely watch your grades/classes senior year to make sure you continue to challenge yourself, but the focus is on 10/11 grades.

Will one B ruin a 4.0 GPA high school? ›

4.0 is the perfect GPA on the unweighted 4.0 scale. If you get even one grade less then A, the unweighted GPA will be less than 4.0.

What's the average GPA for a 12th grader? ›

What is the Average GPA in High School in 2023? The average GPA in US High Schools is 3.0. This number varies by gender – the average female GPA is 3.1 and the average male GPA is 2.9.

How will one C affect my GPA? ›

One C in your transcript will not greatly impact your GPA and if it is a rare occurrence some colleges will just consider it a fluke. Colleges will probably look past it if that is the only class you've ever really struggled with as reflected per your grades.

Can I go to college with bad grades in high school? ›

The short answer is yes. I've worked with a number of students who had bad grades in high school, but went on to do well in college. I've also worked with a few, however, who weren't quite ready for prime time. So while the answer is yes, a student with bad grades can still go to college.

Do colleges look more at GPA or grades? ›

More than just GPA.

As they evaluate your academic performance throughout high school, colleges will look at both your overall GPA and the individual grades you received in your courses. Different high schools have different ways of calculating GPAs, including various weighting systems.

How much do grades really matter for college? ›

A good GPA in college has many benefits. Students must maintain a minimum GPA for federal financial aid eligibility. Though most schools set their requirements, it's usually no lower than a 2.0 GPA. Having a 3.5 GPA or higher also has its perks.

What GPA will colleges not accept? ›

To get into any four-year college, your GPA should be at least a 2.0 or higher. If you're aiming for selective colleges (less than 60% acceptance rate), you should shoot for at least a 3.5.

What colleges will accept a 1.5 GPA? ›

Sadly, a 1.5GPA entails that there are no colleges that you can use as safety schools, so you will be taking a risk no matter where you apply. The only way to increase your chances is by raising your GPA. Go through the next section and search any school of your preference to see what your odds of acceptance are.

What is world's lowest GPA? ›

0.0 on a 4.0 scale is the lowest GPA record.

Do colleges look at all 4 years of high school? ›

Your first year and sophomore year affect your cumulative GPA, which is important to most colleges. However, a solid academic record in your junior year is likely to carry more importance with an admissions committee.

How many B's is a 3.9 GPA? ›

A 3.9 GPA can be composed of three years of two semesters, each semester containing 5 classes, and all grades equal to As except 3, which are Bs. A 3.85 GPA is the same but 1 or 2 more Bs.

What grade GPA matters the most? ›

Note: Generally, college admissions officers pay more attention to a student's weighted GPA. This is especially true if you are aspiring to go to a top school. Additionally, for these kinds of universities, your weighted GPA should be between 4.0 and 5.0 in order to be competitive.

What GPA do colleges look at the most? ›

An unweighted GPA is the most popular grade point average reporting scale. It is used in high schools and colleges across much of America.

Do universities look at your grade 12 grades? ›

Most universities will use your overall Grade 12 U/M grades in calculating your admission average.

Will one B ruin a 4.0 GPA? ›

One B over 4 years will not substantially affect your cumulative GPA, but a B every term will make you noncompetitive for graduate study at the top schools.

What GPA do Ivy Leagues want? ›

Any lower than 3.5, however, you'll have to either have an impressive, relevant achievement or pray for a miracle to get an offer. Therefore, it is best to aspire for the maximum 4.0 to play it safe. But as long as you have at least a 3.7 GPA, you can still get a serious chance at consideration for an offer.

Does Harvard Look at 8th grade? ›

No, Harvard does not look at middle school grades. However, developing good study habits and work ethic during middle school can build the foundations for your high school marks and academic achievements that Harvard will look at.

What is the hardest high school grade? ›

While junior year is often the hardest year of high school, the transition from middle school to 9th grade can also be tough. To make it easier, don't feel afraid to reach out to your teachers and counselors, and take advantage of the support resources that are available.

Do colleges look at your 11th grade year? ›

11th grade is the most important year in terms of academics. This is because it is the last grade where colleges will see a full academic year's performance on your transcript - colleges will only see one semester's worth of senior year grades at most.

Is grade 11 or 12 more important? ›

11th grade overall is very important. Any and every college puts a lot of emphasis on your junior year (11th) of high school the most, as it is the most important of the three years (no college likes a downward grade trend).

Do universities look at grade 11? ›

Universities use Grade 11 marks as a way to give provisional acceptance to students. This is when you are accepted into the university based on your Grade 11 marks, but need to pass your Matric well to get admission permanently. Without good grades in your Matric results, you may lose your provisional admission.


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