College applications are complicated, and it can be difficult to understand how schools make decisions based on so many different components. Among other things, colleges consider grades, test scores, essays, extracurriculars, and recommendations.
Anxiety tends to be highest about test scores and essays, the final hurdles that students must clear before getting into colleges. But this outlook is shortsighted because nothing is more important to college admissions than a student’s grades and academic performance.
“The hard evidence supports what admissions representatives have long advised: academic performance is the single most important part of a competitive application.”
That’s not to say that SAT and ACT scores aren’t important, but they only represent a portion of the admissions profile. And in particular, students with poor academic records will be limited in their admissions prospects regardless of their SAT and ACT scores.
Recently, the focus on late-game application components like test scores and personal statements has softened. Last week, NPR covered a recent study by William Hiss, former Dean of Admissions at Bates College, one of nearly 800 US schools where SAT and ACT scores are now optional.
The study was provocative. More than 120,000 students at 33 different schools demonstrated “virtually no difference in grades and graduation rates” whether they submitted test scores or not. The hard evidence seems to support what admissions representatives have long advised: academic performance is the single most important part of a competitive application.
Despite this new evidence, it’s unlikely that colleges will abandon the SAT and ACT. Hiss concedes that standardized test scores can help a school identify a talented applicant from “a different sort of background”, and College Board data has indicated that SAT scores strongly correlate with success in college. However, an increasing number of schools are making SAT and ACT scores optional so students feel encouraged to apply.
With colleges and universities more motivated to select applicants based on academic performance, there are a few ways students can set themselves up for admissions success:
Early Success Opens Doors
Academic performance isn’t a switch that can be flipped on. Middle schoolers with strong foundations in core subject areas like math, reading, writing, and science will be poised to succeed in high school when material gets more difficult. If students struggle as freshmen, advanced tracks such as the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs may no longer be available, preventing them from excelling at the highest levels. Families should take a proactive approach to academic success so students are equipped with the knowledge and study skills to handle both current and upcoming challenges.
Seek Out Challenges
Strong grades look good to colleges, but schools know that not every class is equally challenging. At our College Admissions Seminar, UVA’s Associate Dean of Admissions Valerie Gregory explained that universities do extensive research on high schools, and know which courses and programs are most demanding. Students who do well in the most challenging courses – including APs, IBs, and honors classes – put themselves in the best possible position for college admission.
Strong grades in high school don’t happen overnight, but students who hit a few bumps in the road aren’t automatically disqualified. Colleges and universities look favorably upon students who improve their grades and take on additional academic responsibilities each year in high school. Performance in foundational courses during junior and senior years is especially critical.
Focusing on strong academic performance throughout four years of high school is a long-term task, but the rewards are clear. Academic performance is the most important single aspect influencing college applications, and students who work hard to achieve excellent grades build the skills and habits that set them up for success in college.
As long as there is an application process, people will ask what leads to college acceptance and success. Hiss concludes his study by summarizing what’s most important in college: “If [students] have good high school grades, they’re almost certainly going to be fine.”
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Strong academic results pave the way for tomorrow’s success. What is your family focusing on in school right now? Let us know in the comments section below.
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