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College Admissions Rubric: Developing a Competitive Transcript

Admissions officer reviews applicants' transcripts.

IvyWise On-Demand: The Role of High School Transcripts in College Admissions

How exactly do college admissions officers evaluate a student’s transcript?

Join IvyWise college admissions counselors as they share insights on how college admissions officers take a student’s grades, course load, and strength of school into consideration when reading their application.


By Tiffany, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor 

The transcript is one of the most powerful documents provided in the application process and is often one of the first components of the college application that evaluators consider. A student’s GPA, found on a transcript, can be regarded as a significant indicator of success in post-secondary education and therefore has an essential role when considering applicants.

According to the latest NACAC State of College Admissions report, 95% of all admissions officers surveyed place some level of importance on grades. Some may be surprised to learn that the utility of the transcript does not end with a cumulative GPA. Colleges and universities want to see that the student selected challenging and rigorous courses throughout high school while maintaining strong academic markings/grades. The same NACAC report found 92.7% of admissions officers placed some level of importance on the strength of an applicant’s curriculum.

Within one document, admissions officers find initial answers to many questions about an applicant, including academic interests and academic performance. Since the data on a transcript cannot be formed in a single year, but rather over several years, the final version of a transcript reflects hundreds of days, lessons, projects, projects, tests, and evaluations. Let’s take a deeper look at the transcript.

Course Rigor

There’s an unspoken understanding regarding the academic challenges and rigor awaiting students in college. College will not be the 13th year of high school, and therefore, admissions officers often consider an applicant’s preparation for college and desire to be challenged in high school. The transcript, considered alongside a high school’s academic profile or curriculum offering, helps admissions officers address these questions. I often asked myself, “which challenging academic opportunities were available to this student and which opportunities did they choose to pursue?” In the most competitive applicant pools, successful applicants have chosen to take the most rigorous courses available, including Advanced Placement courses, Dual Enrollment, AICE courses, or earning a full IB Diploma.

Rigor in Core Courses

There are classes considered to be core courses within most high schools and others considered to be electives. The core courses reflect a school’s educational philosophy and are sure to include Math, Science, History, English, and World Languages. These academic areas often receive more consideration within the admissions process as they correlate with a college’s general education requirements. When making curriculum choices, students should be sure to include the appropriate amount of rigor in their curriculum, specifically in core courses. Families trying to determine the “appropriate amount of rigor” should consider a student’s entire course load and academic success within the class. Grades are a part of the consideration.

Grading Scales

Across the landscape of high schools, there are a variety of grading scales. As an admissions officer, I have seen grading scales using numbers, letters, phrases, symbols, and written narratives! To calibrate across the application pool, many universities try to find ways to normalize the reported results. For example, some universities have the initial admissions officer recalculate an applicant’s GPA to an internal, weighted scale. Still, other universities may ask the applicant to transcribe their transcript onto a standard form, forgoing the requirement of an official transcript for an initial evaluation. State Universities (ex. University of California, Penn State, and Florida State University) tend to use the self-reporting option.

Grade Trends

In addition to a student’s cumulative performance, admissions offices can also consider grades in particular foundational subjects (ex. Physics and Calculus for those heading towards engineering) or grade trends from year to year. For example, an upward grade trend can reflect maturity, growth, and potential. While a positive trend in grades could be considered, be forewarned that improvement in Senior year alone will not erase a poor record during the first few years of high school. All in all, it’s imperative to plan ahead and be aware.

How to Build a Stellar Transcript

The transcript speaks to your academic journey through high school. In order to maximize the power of your academic choices, I’d suggest several small steps.

Plan Ahead

It’s never too early to map out all four years of your time in high school. Be sure to consider graduation requirements as well as opportunities for academic rigor. When you’ve completed your map, check in with an advisor, counselor, or professional familiar with your academic choices within your school.

Balance Your Choices

If you are offered flexibility and a variety of courses, be sure to make room for your individual academic interests. Use your electives to dive into a concept or discipline you may want to explore in college.

Ask For an Unofficial Copy of Your Transcript

Many students may be surprised to see the information listed on the transcript. For some schools, it might include tardies/absences, immunizations, class rank, etc. It’s never too early or late to see the information an admissions officer will see. It is also an excellent time to check for accuracy.

Ask For Help When You Need It

Don’t be afraid to seek out help from teachers, tutors, parents, or peers if you’re struggling with a course or subject area. Early intervention can help you get your academic performance back on track and alleviate a lot of stress down the line. Ask for teachers to further explain concepts you haven’t quite grasped. Seek out tutors if you’ve fallen way behind. If your course load is too demanding, meet with your counselor to see what options you have. If you got a bad grade on a test or paper that’s dragging down your course grade, see what extra work or assignments you can do to possibly boost your average. Teachers and counselors want to help you succeed, so ask for help when you need it. Addressing problems early will help you continue your grade trends and help you build a strong transcript.

While the transcript is not the only factor that admissions officers evaluate when making admissions decisions, it is by far the most important. Students need to plan early for their academic track and adjust along the way to ensure they’re reaching their academic potential and performing well in the classroom. At IvyWise, we work with students to help them cultivate strong transcripts through guidance with course planning and academic tutoring and test prep to ensure students are getting the best grades possible. For more information on our college counseling and tutoring services contact us today.

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