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What Colleges Look For

What Matters to Colleges from Freshman Year of High School?

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By Collegewise Staff on April, 11 2022 | 6 minute read

So you’re a freshman or a sophomore thinking about that 9th grade report card and wondering, “Uhh, how much will colleges care about my C in Biology, since science is my least favorite subject?”

Take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Freshman year can be tough for many students. Adjusting to high school, learning who you are, and trying to figure out how to balance everything can make it hard to excel in the classroom. In this blog post, we’ll share just how important freshman year grades are—and what colleges care about even more.

Related: (Podcast Episode) Every Year of High School Matters

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). But that’s not to say freshman year doesn’t matter at all.

Lots of colleges, particularly private schools, will consider your freshman grades. And beyond just the impact on your GPA, your academic performance as a freshman can influence which classes you’ll be eligible to take as a sophomore. Pretty much every college will look at how much you challenged yourself within the context of your high school, so it’s great to give yourself the option to select more rigorous courses by turning in a solid performance freshman year. (Whether or not you choose to take that option, of course, is entirely up to you and a good thing to discuss with your school or Collegewise counselor.") Don’t panic if you have a stumble here or there while learning the ropes of high school. But don’t blow off your freshman year, either.

What classes a freshman should take to get ready for college

There’s no one answer to this question (thankfully!) And, while students may feel they have to load themselves down with the most difficult classes available, the truth is there aren’t many students who can set the curve in every class. That’s why most colleges don’t require anywhere near that level of achievement.

So think about what subjects interest you and what courses you’ve had success with in the past. Even if you haven’t had a 4.0 since birth, you should always use your best subjects as a chance to give your best performances. Whether it’s in math, drama, or video production, colleges appreciate flashes of academic potential even if your overall GPA doesn’t break the bank.

Something we often say to Collegewise families is that students who are overprepared for college are often underprepared for life. So while you should select courses that will make you a competitive college applicant, making all your high school decisions based on what you think will get you into an Ivy is typically a fruitless pursuit. And one that may not be intellectually rewarding, either.

What if your freshman year performance wasn’t as strong as you’d like?

Most students and parents have heard the message that the best way to improve your chances of admission to college is to get good grades in challenging courses. But if you’re a freshman, sophomore, or junior who feels like you haven’t necessarily shown colleges what you’re capable of through your coursework, it’s not too late.

That’s because, while your list of classes and accompanying GPA provides a nice summary of your academic career, many colleges, especially private schools, will also look at your academic trends. Do you appear to be getting academically stronger with age? Are you progressively challenging yourself more, and performing better in those classes, than you have in the past? Colleges call this an upward trend, and showing this type of academic growth can sometimes prove to be just as important (if not more so) as the sum of your academic accomplishments.

This is particularly important for a student who may feel dejected about underperforming, one who is worried that their college fate has already been sealed and may not see the point of working harder. There’s still time. This semester, next semester, next year, etc.

Colleges will even evaluate your course selection for your senior year, and many schools will also look at your seventh semester (the first semester of your senior year) grades before they make an admissions decision. That means even a junior still has several vital opportunities left to buckle down and trend upward.

There’s no way to erase what’s happened in the past. But it’s not too late to start a new trend.

Tips to improve GPA after freshman year

So, you’re looking at your freshman year grades and thinking, “Dang, I know I can do better.”

That’s step one to improving your GPA! Step two is identifying which subjects you need help in and step 3 is coming up with a plan for how you’ll achieve your desired outcome.

Maybe you need a tutor. Maybe you need better study habits. Maybe you need to be more strategic in your course selection. Only you know what’s going to help you. And after you figure that out, remember that there are many online resources that can help you become a better student, like Khan Academy or Smith Rivas.

Related: Wiser Ways to Study

Closing thoughts: Statistical significance of freshman year

So, does freshman year matter? While freshman year holds some significance to admissions officers, we tell students at Collegewise that it’s most important to focus on who they are and who they want to be during this first year of high school.

It’s too early for freshmen to worry about lots of things—the SAT, the driver’s test, and yes, even getting into a dream college. Please don’t start measuring your every 9th grade step by whether it will help you get into Yale. Not only is that a surefire way to initiate early-stage admissions anxiety, it’s also not an effective admissions strategy.

But it’s not too early for freshmen to engage in their high school careers, to start taking responsibility for their education, and to begin preparing for—not obsessing about—the college admissions process.

Author’s note: Some content from this blog was adapted from Kevin McMullin’s posts on his personal blog, Wise Like Us. This includes Lies People Tell High School Freshmen, Five To-Dos for Freshmen and Sophomores, Trend Upwards, and Helping Freshman Start High School Right.


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About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 

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