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What is an Upward Grade Trend?

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When looking at your college application, admissions committees are trying to understand who you are as a person and as a student. Often, grades tell a story about who you are – both in what types of classes you took and how you performed in them individually, but also in how your grades collectively have changed throughout your time in high school. If you have an upward grade trend on your transcript, you may want to explain why on your application. Keep reading for an explanation of the upward grade trend and how to talk about it!

What is an Upward Grade Trend?

An upward grade trend is a progression on your transcript that shows your grades consistently improving over your time in high school. More concretely, this would look like lower grades in freshman and sophomore year, followed by substantially higher grades in junior and senior years. There must be a significant increase to call it an upward grade trend. In other words, going from an A average freshman and sophomore years to an A+ average your junior and senior years would not constitute an upward grade trend. Instead, an upward grade trend would look like going from a C average to a B+ average, as that it is a significant, noticeable improvement.

Does It Make a Difference in Admissions?

An upward grade trend can make a big difference in the admissions process, especially if you had lower grades at the beginning of your high school career. If you faced adverse circumstances in the past, the upward grade trend is a way for colleges to see that your grades do not reflect lack of commitment or passion, but rather show how other life situations inhibited your performance in school. But, upward grade trends can result from many situations, not just adverse life circumstances. For example, maybe you improved your work habits and studied harder later in high school, or maybe you gained more confidence which reflected in your grades.

So, what do adverse life situations look like? Adverse circumstances can include (but are not limited to) mental or physical illness, death in your family, the need to work to support your family, and so on. It is important that you identify a clear and legitimate reason to explain your grades on your applications, rather than giving a vague blanket statement. If you can specifically expand upon your situation, how it hurt you, and how you overcame it to achieve better grades, colleges will see that you are a serious student with an overarching commitment to learning. Treat this as an opportunity to show personal growth, reflection, and dedication to your education.

Be careful about where you explain your upward grade trend. Your personal statement is usually not the best place to explain why your grades were not their best during freshman and sophomore years. Use the personal statement to show your talents, creativity, and thoughtfulness. Instead, explain your adverse circumstances and upward grade trend in the “additional information” section of your application. For more information on how to make the most of your situation, check out our CollegeVine guide: How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on Applications.

Do Not Force an Upward Grade Trend

Overall, grades from freshman and sophomore year are given significantly less weight than those from junior and senior year. Regardless of your freshman and sophomore year grades, your junior and senior year grades should be strong. However, this does not mean that you should be fine with getting worse grades your freshman and sophomore years with the expectation that you’ll improve them your junior and senior years.

Remember that an upward grade trend is by no means better than keeping grades strong throughout high school. Rather, it is a way to mitigate the negative impact of initially low grades on your college application if you find yourself looking at less-than-ideal freshman- and sophomore-year grades as a high performing junior or senior. So, if you are a freshman or sophomore, aim to get good grades, and do not try to force an upward grade trend. Working hard early in high school is highly beneficial – you will develop good study habits, build strong relationships with teachers, and so on.

The Take-Away

If you demonstrate an upward grade trend, it can be advantageous to highlight it in the “additional information” section of your application. This is an opportunity to explain to admissions officers how and why you have improved, especially if you had adverse life circumstances. Not only will this help admissions officers understand you as a person better, but you can show that you have reflected on your experiences and grown from them.

Remember that an upward grade trend is important only if it exists. If you are a freshman or sophomore, you should always aim to excel to the best of your abilities. If you are a junior or senior starting your applications, explaining an upward grade trend that simply doesn’t exist will detract from your accomplishments. You want to send the message that you are a competent applicant on your own terms—not that you are reinventing yourself just to receive an edge in the admissions process.

Finally, if you have more questions on whether or not you have an upward grade trend, or if you are looking for advice on how to explain it on your application, check out our guides How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on ApplicationsHow to Get Into a Competitive School If You Struggled in High School, and Tackling Holistic Admissions: A Breakdown of What Colleges Consider. Good luck!


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Julia Mearsheimer
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Julia Mearsheimer attends the University of Chicago. She is considering majoring in Philosophy, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or Political Science, but remains undecided. In addition to writing, she enjoys listening to Nina Simone and baking bread.