Almost all colleges and universities consider a good academic record to be the most important part of a strong admissions application. A good academic record, however, is about more than grades. The list below discusses some of the important features that separate a good academic record from a weaker one.
To get into a top college
or top university
, you'd better have a transcript that is mostly 'A's. Realize that colleges don't usually look at weighted grades--they will consider grades on an unweighted 4.0 scale. Also, colleges will often recalculate your GPA to consider only core academic courses so that your GPA isn't inflated by subjects such as gym, chorus, drama or cooking. Learn more in this article on weighted GPAs
2. Full Coverage of Core SubjectsThe requirements vary from college to college, so be sure to research the requirements for each school to which you are applying. In general, however, typical requirements might look like this: 4 years of English, 3 years of math (4 years recommended), 2 years of history or social science (3 years recommended), 2 years of science (3 years recommended), 2 years of a foreign language (3 years recommended).
If your high school offers Advanced Placement classes, selective colleges will want to see that you've taken these courses. You don't need to overdo it if your school offers dozens of AP subjects, but you need to demonstrate that you're taking challenging courses. Success in AP classes, especially earning a 4 or 5 on the AP exam, is an extremely strong predictor of your ability to do well in college. Learn more in this article on why AP courses matter
4. International Baccalaureate ClassesLike AP courses, International Baccalaureate classes (IB) cover college-level material and are measured by a standardized exam. IB courses are more common in Europe than the United States, but they are gaining popularity in the U.S. Successful completion of IB courses shows colleges that you are taking challenging classes and that you are ready for college-level work. They may also earn you college credit.
5. Honors and Other Accelerated ClassesIf your school doesn't offer many AP or IB classes, does it offer honors classes or other accelerated classes? A college won't penalize you because your school offers no AP subjects, but they will want to see that you've taken the most challenging courses available to you.
A lot of colleges require two or three years of a foreign language, but you'll look much more impressive if you take a full four years. College educations are emphasizing global awareness more and more, so strength in language will be a big plus for your application. Note that colleges would much rather see depth in one language than a smattering of several languages. To learn more, check out this article on foreign language requirements
As with a foreign language, many schools require three years of math, not four. However, strength in math tends to impress the admissions folks. If you have the opportunity to take four years of math, ideally through calculus, your high school record will be far more impressive than that of an applicant who has covered just the minimum. Learn more in this article on high school math preparation
8. Community College or 4-Year College ClassesDepending on where you live and what your high school's policies are, you may have the opportunity to take actual college classes while in high school. If you can take a college writing or math class while in high school, the benefits are several: you'll prove that you can handle college-level work; you'll demonstrate that you like challenging yourself; and you'll most likely earn college credit that can help you graduate early, double major, or take more elective classes.
9. Rigorous Senior Year ClassesColleges won't see your final grades from your senior year until after they've made a decision about your admission, but they do want to see that you are continuing to challenge yourself in 12th grade. If your senior year schedule suggests that you're slacking off, that will be a huge strike against you. Also, taking AP and IB courses in 12th grade can have huge benefits when you get to college.
10. Upward Trending GradesSome teenagers figure out how to be a good student part way through high school. While low grades in your freshman and sophomore years will hurt your application, they won't hurt as much as low grades in your junior and senior years. Colleges want to see that your academic skills are improving, not deteriorating.