Getting into college is increasingly competitive, and more and more students like you are looking at ways they can increase their chances of being accepted. While it’s not uncommon for kids to wait until later in high school to start worrying about their GPA, we don’t recommend this! Your grades begin calculating with your very first assignment, quiz, and test, so it’s important to think about this early on.
But do colleges look at freshman grades? Do these grades matter as much as grades you earn as a sophomore, junior, and senior? Let’s take a look.
Do Colleges Look at Freshman Grades?
Colleges do indeed consider your freshman grades, although maybe not in the way you think. They see your freshman grades holistically, as part of your overall GPA. If they take the time to break down your grades by year, it’s generally understood that the freshman year is seen as the least important year in their calculations. This is because as educators, they know that 9th grade is a transition year, one in which you are adapting to the high school routine. They make concessions for the fact that you are required to be more independent, are learning more difficult content, and are also adjusting to a new social environment and all that comes with it.
But that doesn’t mean freshman year doesn’t count. With the exception of California state colleges and universities, which only consider your GPA from sophomore through senior year, every other college across the nation includes freshman year in the GPA. This means the minute you start high school, every graded assignment contributes to that class’s grade, which contributes to your overall grade point average.
Competitive, elite, and Ivy League schools also compute your GPA from all four years of high school. But they’re also known for conducting thorough studies of what led to those grades. For instance, schools like Stanford and MIT will take some time to evaluate how you earned your GPA. In fact, most schools look at more than how close you got to a 4.0. They look at how much you challenged yourself, what courses you chose to take as electives, and if you overcame a bad freshman year.
Why Is Freshman Year Important?
So you may be asking, do freshman grades matter? And the answer is yes! In more ways than you probably realize.
Think of freshman year as the foundation of your high school career. The classes you take and the grades you make are the building blocks for the years to come. A weak first year can set you up for a wobbly second year, and so on. And you may find yourself having to go back and rebuild some of the foundational blocks to make your GPA a little sturdier.
How Your Grades Are Affected
Freshman year sets the tone for everything that will come after. For instance, a low GPA at the end of freshman year follows you into sophomore year. Rather than starting the year strong, you’ll spend a lot of time and effort trying to undo damage or dig yourself out of a low GPA hole.
Let’s say you take 7 classes as a freshman and end the year with a C- average, or a 2.0. If we assume you’ll continue to take 7 classes a year, you’d need to earn an A in every single class in order to graduate with a 3.5 GPA, the highest GPA you can earn in this scenario. Imagine the pressure of trying to do that! Now, there are always options such as doing well in weighted classes like AP or taking additional courses through summer school or online, but you can see how starting with a low GPA can inhibit your chances of graduating with a high GPA.
Let's consider if you end your freshman year with a B- average or a 3.0 GPA. In this example, you can earn a 3.75 by the time you graduate – if you make A’s in all your classes sophomore through senior year. Again, you don't want that pressure, so the better you do your freshman year, the better your chances of having a shot for a high GPA.
This information is not meant to scare you, but to help you understand that freshman year grades do indeed matter to your overall GPA. You shouldn’t obsess over them, but you should be aware that they play a part in the bigger picture.
How Your Courses Are Affected
Just like grades set the tone for the rest of your academics, the courses you choose to take freshman year also impact your future years. Many high school courses are unavailable until you complete certain prerequisites (you can’t take Algebra II without first completing Algebra I, for example). So it’s important that you take these classes early on.
If you know you want to pursue a career that involves a second language, you will want to take the highest level for which you qualify your freshman year. If you know you want to do something in the science field, you should ask your counselor for the best recommendation for your science selection freshman year. And if you want to be a journalist, you should choose a writing elective, preferably one that increases in levels each year (Journalism I, II, III, and IV).
The same idea goes into choosing honors or AP courses versus regular classes. If you excel in a certain subject or have a passion in a certain area, challenging yourself in higher-level courses is a good idea. Even advanced freshmen courses are sometimes weighted, which can boost your GPA, and if you want to take AP classes later, many require honors classes in your freshman and sophomore years.
But take note: We caution you to choose advanced classes wisely and make sure they are classes you feel confident you can do well in. Balance challenge with potential for excellence. Colleges love to see advanced courses, but if you do poorly in them, they are not an advantage.
Keep in mind, too, that your GPA plays into your class rank, which some schools request as part of the admissions process. The takeaway here is that the better you do, the more options you open up for yourself, not just in high school, but in college and beyond.
How to Overcome a Bad Freshman Year
But what if you’ve finished your freshman year and it didn’t go so well? Don't panic! There are tons of ways to pick yourself up and turn things around; in fact, students do it all the time. Start by considering the following questions:
First, are you trending up? Trending up is a term educators use to describe grades that are increasingly improving. If your freshman grades were low, but a look at your transcript shows steady improvement, colleges are much more likely to look at you favorably. Remember, they understand the difficulties of freshman year. So they check to see if you got a handle on them, if you learned to study better, and if you kept trying rather than giving up.
After all, if they accept you at their school, they want to see you graduate. They want to know that even if you have a slow start, you’ll figure it out, adapt, learn, and grow.
Second, are you challenging yourself? Colleges want to see honors and AP-level courses on your transcript. Straight A’s in regular classes are impressive, but colleges will wonder why, if you were capable of an A in a regular English course, you never challenged yourself to take AP Language or Literature. They will see you as someone who chooses to take the easier route, and this may very well hurt you when they compare your application to someone’s that contains more rigorous classes.
Third, are you showing academic growth? Are you taking more challenging courses as you become an upperclassman? Are you willing to branch out of your comfort zone to take a course that might strengthen a different skill set? Are your grades improving and is your GPA rising? This is a snapshot of what they can expect from you in college, so it’s important they see these indicators of growth.
Fourth, are you taking courses that will raise your GPA? You can accomplish this in a couple different ways. Taking advanced courses with added weight will balance out poor early grades. Each school handles this differently, but a common practice is for AP grades to receive one extra quality point. If you earn a B in AP History, for instance, your grade is actually calculated as an A. Not only will these weighted classes help raise your overall GPA, but they will demonstrate academic growth and show you challenging yourself with tougher courses.
Another way you can raise your GPA is by taking online courses. These courses will ideally supplement what you’re learning in your regular classes or offer you an opportunity to learn something you’ve always been curious about. They may also be classes unavailable at your school. Or, they might offer extra support in a subject that causes you to struggle. Online courses will be factored into your overall GPA, and assuming you do well in them, they can really give it a boost. And bonus, they are another opportunity to show you working harder and expanding your horizons.
Fifth, are you being honest with yourself about your level of effort? You don’t have to tell us – just be honest with yourself. Have you worked as hard as you could? Did you truly study for exams and quizzes? Did you pay attention in class and take good notes? Did you ask questions if you didn’t understand something? These questions might lead to answers that are tough to own up to, but you owe it to yourself to identify where you went wrong. It really is the only way to move forward without repeating the same mistakes.
So identify the classes where you might need more help. Seek tutoring in those subjects so you can get a better understanding of them and enter the next school year stronger. And if you wish you would have taken an important pre-requisite during the school year, it’s not too late to take it over the summer!
Once you’ve done all this, your grades and GPA will reflect your efforts. When you do get to your senior year and are filling out college applications, you might even have the opportunity to explain a poor freshman year. Some schools reserve a special place on their applications for just that. Others allow you to write a college admissions essay about struggles you’ve overcome. This is your opportunity to explain poor freshman performance and discuss what you learned from it. If your freshman grades are not an indication of your abilities, it will show in your transcript, your academic growth, and grades that trend upwards. Counselors can even address freshman struggles in their letters of recommendation, as can teachers who have seen you improve throughout high school.
When it comes down to how colleges view you, they never look at just one criterion. Colleges know that you are much more than a GPA or a standardized test score or a club membership. They look at the whole you, and freshman year is just one part of that.
Learn more about how each high school year plays a part in your college application.
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Rebecca has a doctorate in Educational Leadership and taught high school English for over 20 years. Her students consistently earned top scores on the SAT and ACT, AP Language and AP Literature exams. She worked one-on-one with students through her own tutoring and educational coaching business and believes that individualized attention and personal connection are the keys to success. Rebecca is the author of the parenting book Teenagers 101: What a Top Teacher Wishes You Knew About Helping Your Kids Succeed, which provides tips for parents on how to help their kids reach their full potential. As a content writer for Prep Scholar, she hopes to help guide students and parents through high school and make the transition into adulthood as stress-free – and informed – as possible.