When entering high school, it can seem like the stakes are a lot higher than before, and this poses the question of whether a student’s GPA really defines them or if other factors come into play. First off, your GPA does not define you as a person, but it can have a significant impact on the future opportunities you’re afforded. Grades, extracurricular involvement, and leadership positions and accolades achieved throughout high school are all pieces of the puzzle that make up the person you’re becoming and the profile universities see on an application. With the proper mindset and strategy, you can prioritize the classes, grades, and involvement that matters most to selective universities to ensure you’re set up for the future of your dreams beyond high school graduation.

Related: Middle School vs. High School: What Parents Should Know

All Years Matter

When it comes to GPA, “A” is the most important letter here, and this stands for “Average.” Your grade point average will be made up of all of the classes you’ve taken each year over the course of your high school journey, so therefore, all your years of school and classes matter for your GPA. However, there are some classes that may carry more weight on a GPA and some that universities emphasize and scrutinize more. Additionally, some of your classes may never show up on a college application transcript or be factored into your GPA, depending on when you take them, so this is where planning is key.

9th and 10th

Since there is no “trial period” of high school, the clock on your GPA starts ticking from day one, and this means your freshmen and sophomore year grades matter just as much as the rest of them. In fact, it could be argued that these years’ grades matter more than the later years since they’re going to make up a majority of the transcript and GPA a college admissions officer sees. This is because students typically apply to college in the first semester of their senior year before senior year grades are finalized, so universities may be making an admissions decision based on just the grades from your first three years of high school.

Given this, it’s important to take your classes seriously early on, especially because you may be in easier classes in these earlier years, so there’s no reason not to hit a home run and ace those freshmen year classes to position yourself for a high GPA. Finally, the last reason it’s important to pay attention and do your best early on in high school is the simple fact that courses build on each other as they get more advanced, and it’s expected that a student has a firm grasp of the prior year’s subject matter as they enter the more advanced course the following year.

11th and 12th

As students advance in high school to become upperclassmen, they should be advancing in the type and rigor of courses on their schedule. This means that by a student’s junior year, they’re usually taking a handful of honor and AP courses, and possibly, even more, their senior year. It’s important to show the progression of a more rigorous course load since universities want to see that applicants are progressing intellectually and challenging themselves with more advanced and college-level classes.

However, this does mean that as classes get more challenging, it may become more difficult to maintain straight A’s. Now, here’s the good news: colleges know that. Honors and AP courses are weighted differently than regular classes, to offset the difference in difficulty. Therefore, an A in an AP class could be a 6-point weight added to your GPA, while an A in a regular class might only be a 4-point weight. Advanced classes are a great way to show colleges how ready you are for advanced learning, as well as to boost your GPA if you can do well in these classes.

Junior Year is the Most Important

While all the years of high school are important, junior year is definitely one that stands out for many reasons, and for college-bound teens, it may be the most important year of their high school career. The main reason junior year is so important to colleges is that this is the last full year of grades they’re going to see before making a decision on your admission. This is also the year when you’re likely to take the most advanced courses you ever have before, as well as the year by which you may have risen to leadership positions in your extracurricular activities. This is the one year you definitely don’t want to slack off, and if anything, you should push yourself a little more than ever before.

Push Yourself Academically 


Since this is the last year of courses colleges will likely see before making their decision on your admission, you want to make an effort to put your best foot forward and show those universities that you are a hard-working, intellectually curious individual who isn’t afraid of new challenges.

One of the challenges universities expect is a more advanced curriculum, including a variety of AP (or college-level) courses, if your school offers them. You will want to gauge your capabilities to ensure you don’t commit to more than you can handle since poor grades in advanced classes won’t do you much good. That said, you should push yourself as far as you can without significantly compromising the quality of your work and your success in those classes.

Make Up for Past Mistakes

The one good thing about being evaluated on multiple years’ academic performance is the ability to make up for past mistakes with a positive trajectory of improvement. If you had a rocky start to your freshman year and didn’t quite pull off the 4.0 you were hoping for, there’s still room to improve and reverse the damage done, so long as you keep focused on upward mobility.

This simply means you need to show a concerted effort in improving your academic performance, as well as challenging yourself with more difficult classes, and this type of trend can really prove your maturity and self-improvement to colleges. An admissions officer cares more about where your grades are going than where they’ve been since this trend and your recent performance is a more relevant indicator of your future performance in college, which is what they’re trying to assess.

Related: How to Be Successful in High School

Crush Upcoming Tests

While classroom grades and your overall GPA are important to college admissions officers, they’re not the only quantifiable figure considered with your application. Admissions officers will also be looking out for your scores on AP exams, any end-of-class national or state-wide tests, SATs, and Subject SATs if you take them. The AP exam scores are your chance to prove to universities that you really are ready for college, and with adequate scores on these exams, you can even place out of some required core introductory college classes.

SATs (and ACTs) are a universal barometer used to compare students from different schools across the country, and you want to work to achieve scores within the average range accepted by your college of choice. Taking the PSAT leading up to the SAT can be a helpful start, and most students should begin their SAT preparation by their sophomore year of high school. Lastly, SAT Subject tests are another opportunity to shine, if there’s a subject you already excel in. These tests are not typically required, but they may help you place into advanced subject matter programs at the college of your choice, as well as put you a cut above peers who haven’t attempted those tests.

Be a Leader or Get Involved

In addition to assessing your grades and course load, colleges want to see that you have the other soft skills required to succeed at their university and in the real world, and leadership is a big one. One reason colleges care so much about extracurriculars is they want to see what these extracurriculars bring out in students and in particular, which students rise to the occasion and become leaders, spearheading new programs, innovating, and making a unique impact. You should increase your involvement and responsibilities in a few extracurricular activities as you progress through high school and aim for those leadership roles, or at the least, be able to point to the specific impact or difference you made on the organization or community.

Looking for leadership opportunities for your teen? Check out what Beta Bowl has to offer!

What if I Messed Up My Junior Year?

If worse comes to worst and you aren’t having a picture-perfect junior year (academically or personally), this is okay and it doesn’t have to dictate your future. If you’re still early on in your junior year, there may be time to fix the situation, and this means putting together a game-plan to get your grades back on track. You should talk with your teachers in classes in which you’re struggling, request opportunities for extra-credit work, and possibly consider seeking out a tutor.

If you ended up getting an SAT to score you aren’t happy with, you can always practice further and re-take the test. When it comes to those standardized tests, practice really is everything. Now, if you’ve already nearly completed your junior year and things just didn’t pan out as you’d hoped, there’s still an option for you: you can explain the situation on your college applications. College applications include an essay portion for a reason, and they truly want to hear each student’s personal statement before deciding if they’ll admit them to their university.

This is your chance to explain what obstacles you were faced during your junior year, what action you took to overcome them, and your plan in the future to further course-correct and end up on the path of your choice. Colleges will respect your transparency and self-awareness, taking responsibility for the situation, and your maturity in your plan to improve in the future.

Finally, if all else fails and your target schools are no longer in the realm of reality, you can always attend a less selective school at first, and plan to transfer to your dream university after one or two years. This is a very popular option, and you might be surprised just how many students at top universities were transferred.

student looking for a book

Who Looks at My Grades?

Admissions officers at the universities to which you apply will be the ones looking at your grades, along with the grades of hundreds or thousands of your peers. You should realize that these admissions officers aren’t “out to get you”, but rather, they’re out to find the pool of students who appear best equipped to excel at that university.

These admissions officers will know the guidelines for the ranges of scores the university typically accepts, and they’ll make a holistic evaluation, looking between your GPA and transcript, resume, standardized test scores, application essays, recommendation letters, and any supplemental materials, to determine if you’d be a good fit for the university. While they will be comparing your grades to those of other applicants, college admissions are nowhere near that black and white, and there will be many factors that influence the decision on your admission.

What Else Do Colleges Look For?

As mentioned above, grades are only one small piece of the pie that makes up a student’s college application, and universities care about a lot more than your GPA. Colleges look to see whether you’ve challenged yourself with a rigorous course load and if you continually increase the rigor of that course load with each coming year. They’ll look for your extracurricular involvement and want to see any direct impacts you’ve had on the community or organizations of which you’ve been apart.

Along those lines, they’ll look for any evidence of leadership, teamwork, and any outstanding accomplishments or accolades that demonstrate your prowess in or commitment to a certain hobby or activity. They’ll also look at your letters of recommendation to get an outside viewpoint on the type of person and student you are. All around, colleges are looking for a vast array of qualities that lend themselves to successful students at their university, and you have many opportunities to demonstrate those qualities outside of your GPA.

Here is a list of things the college admissions offices will look for:

  1. Strong scores on standardized tests. As we said earlier, it’s vital to put in the practice to perform well in standardized tests. The standardized college entrance exam is considered the best and most objective metric of your college potential. 
  2. Top percentage of class standing. Your ranking and class standing are becoming a little less critical, but some may still consider this worth noting. This metric has even hurt some of the best students because there is only room at the top for a few. So great students who aren’t in the top 5 may appear lower-achieving. You should still do your best to be in the top ranking of your class.
  3. Community involvement. Community service isn’t a college entry requirement, but it does look great on your college application. It demonstrates that you’re a well-rounded person with empathy for others. Even if you do this simply to put it on your application, you may be surprised at the deep sense of fulfillment you can gain from helping other people. 
  4. Leadership roles in high school or community organizations. Colleges love forming the minds of future (and current) leaders. Your application will stand out if you are able to record one or two leadership roles. Anyone can join an organization. Joining doesn’t necessarily demonstrate a commitment to the cause, but taking leadership does. Leadership also shows maturity, character, and possibly organizational ability. You don’t need to be president of the organization, just an officer.
  5. Work and entrepreneurial experience. Colleges love motivated self-starters, so students who have had part-time work or have developed their own businesses get attention. So don’t be shy about sharing your work experiences – the more unique, the better. Having your own business shows maturity, creative thinking, work ethic, leadership, and persistence.  We can help you with this. Check out Beta Bowl’s courses today. 

So whether your business or work is tutoring, babysitting, lawn work, painting, pet-sitting, or e-commerce (or something else entirely) – blow your horn loud and strong.

  1. Recommendations from teachers and guidance counselor. These letters you request from your guidance counselor and teachers carry significant weight with colleges. Hopefully, you have a favorite teacher who understands your academic capabilities and college potential. They can also speak about your character and work ethic. To ensure that you get a quality letter, give your teacher or guidance counselor plenty of time. 

Relevant recommendations from professionals and others. If you did have a job, a letter from your boss attesting to your quality of work could be beneficial. If you know someone attached to the college, like alumni or a donor, don’t be shy about asking for a recommendation. Or even a letter from an influential client or customer may also put you in good standing if you are a young entrepreneur.

Want to put your best foot forward for college? Beta-Bowl can help your teen go above and beyond!

Final Thoughts

High school is a very important time in most teens’ lives, and while the stakes may feel high, it should really be viewed as an opportunity. High school is the opportunity to explore various subjects, find your strengths and passions, and demonstrate your skills to universities. High school is also the time to learn, grow, and challenge yourself in a safe environment, with a staff of teachers who are rooting for your success and who are often willing to go out of their way to help students achieve that success. You don’t need to stress or psych yourself out too much, just remember your short-term and long-term goals, and if you do mess up, don’t dwell on the past, but rather make a plan to move forward successfully.

Related: 20 Tips for High School Freshmen