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Here’s What Colleges Want to See on Your Child’s Transcript

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If you’re like many parents of college-bound students, it’s been quite some time since you went through the college application process yourself, if you even did so at all. Today’s college application process has changed significantly in recent years, so it’s understandable that many parents of college hopefuls find they don’t know much about the process.


One of the questions we hear most often from parents has to do with what, exactly, admissions committees want to see on your child’s transcript? Which aspects are most important? Which are used as initial screening tools?


In this post, we’ll shed some light on the specific details of your teen’s transcript that college admissions committees pay the most attention to. 



What Is On a Transcript?

To fully understand what a college admissions committee is looking for when they review your child’s transcript, you need to know what exactly is on this transcript.


Typically, a transcript details all of your child’s work throughout high school. As such, it includes every class your teen has taken, including electives, and the grades that he or she has achieved in each. It will include the weight or credits assigned to each class, your student’s class rank (if the school uses ranking), and sometimes even standardized test scores, though these are not always included.


Transcripts may also include any official disciplinary actions or serious infractions that your teen has encountered during high school. You can think of a transcript as a giant cumulative report card of your teen’s high school classes.



1. Initial Screening Tools

All selective colleges receive far more applications than they have room for in their incoming classes. In fact, they often receive far more applications than they have time to read in their entirety. For this reason, many college admissions committees use a few aspects of the transcript as initial screening tools.


The most common data from a transcript to use in initial screenings tends to be GPA and class rank. Many selective colleges will set a cut off, and if your child does not meet the minimum GPA or class rank benchmark, his or her application will rarely get a second look. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to achieve in these areas.



2. Grading Trends

Next, college admissions committees look for patterns in your teen’s performance. Does he or she have a perfect GPA? If not, what areas are strength are particularly evident and how do they complement the rest of the application? Does he or she ace every STEM class but stumble in foreign languages? If he or she is applying to a STEM-specific program this might not be a problem, but if he or she is pursuing a liberal arts degree, this could count against him or her.


Admissions committees will also pay attention to pass/fail classes. Sometimes, students are able to achieve an artificially high GPA by taking certain core classes as pass/fail and having them not count towards a cumulative GPA. While this technique might be smart for an especially difficult required course, it’s not a good approach to take frequently since it can appear to hide weaknesses or a willingness to work hard and overcome adversity. Too many classes taken as pass/fail can be a warning sign to an admissions committee.


Finally admissions committees will ask, what is the general trend in his or her grades? Are they consistently top notch? While this is ideal, it’s not the only pattern that admissions committees like to see. They also like to see an upward grade trend. If your teen stumbled initially in high school classes but was able to recover gracefully, the admissions committee will know that he or she can successfully overcome academic struggles.

3. Class Selection

Your teen’s classes get a closer look, too. College admissions committees of course want to see students who have succeeded academically, but there’s a little more to it than that.


First, they look at what kind of classes your teen has taken. Has your child pursued the most challenging course track possible? Is there evidence of success in college level work, such as AP classes, an IB program, honors classes, or independent pursuits? Colleges want to know that their accepted students will be able to succeed in college level classes. If your teen has a 4.0 GPA but has taken only average course offerings, his or her transcript won’t do much to impress.


Ideally, your teen’s transcript should show evidence of his or her ability to tackle college-level classes. The most common ways to achieve this is through AP classes or an IB diploma. If neither of these are possible, your teen might choose to take summer classes at a community college or self-study for an AP exam. While these won’t necessarily make it onto the transcript, they will show up on other parts of the application.



4. Standardized Test Scores

Not all transcripts include standardized test scores, but many do and even if they aren’t on an official transcript, they will still be reviewed. Standardized test scores vary in their importance on a college application. At some colleges they are weighed heavily, being used as an initial screening tool or as a measure of academic potential. At other schools, standardized test scores are far less important or are not even required.


Of course, standardized test scores, when submitted, can always be used to compare applicants. When two applicants with similar profiles, grades, and extracurriculars are both in the running for the same place, standardized test scores might be used as a sort of tie-breaker. Though you can never be sure how heavily they’ll be weighed in the application process, it’s important to know that they can sometimes make or break an applicant.



5. Behavioral Issues

Last but not least, admissions committees look to ensure that your student will be a productive and positive contribution to the college community. This means that they review transcripts for disciplinary issues or infractions.


Of course, this doesn’t have to make or break your teen though. If there are any serious disciplinary issues on his or her transcript, he or she will need to address them clearly someplace else on his or her application. The personal statement or the “Additional Information” section are typically good places for doing this.


For more information about helping your teen through the college application process, see these CollegeVine posts:


Parents, How Involved Should You be in the Application Process?

Parent Perspective: What You Need to Know About Today’s College Applications

How Can I Help My Child Prepare for College Applications?

What Parents Need to Know About SAT and ACT Studying Prep


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.