Learn the truth about how admissions committees evaluate your child’s freshman year
A sinking feeling sets in among many high school students as they embark on the college application process. Some might think, “I messed up freshman year of high school” and, with it, any chance of acceptance at their dream college.
Moving from in-class pop quizzes to ten-page papers, or from a small neighborhood middle school to a multi-county high school is no easy feat. Adjusting to a new environment can make what purports to be the “easiest” year in high school one of the hardest.
But how much do colleges look at freshman year?
Colleges closely evaluate freshman year grades and activities, but not in the ways you might think. Here’s how ninth grade does matter: Freshman year is the foundation for the rest of your child’s high school career.
The courses your child takes early in their career, as well as their performance in them, determine the rest of your child’s high school course load. If they join extracurriculars freshman year, they may become a leader in those extracurriculars as an upperclassman. If they take honors physics at the start of high school, they may enroll in AP physics senior year. And most colleges consider your child’s overall high school GPA, meaning the grades they receive freshman year do have weight.
But here’s the nuance. Many universities follow a “holistic admissions” process, which means they’re not simply looking at grades or your child’s ACT or SAT scores. They’re seeking a sense of your child’s narrative. Has your child made the most of the academic and extracurricular opportunities available at their school? Did they improve or grow during high school?
In that vein, admissions officers consider both your child’s GPA and their freshman course load in the context of their overall high school transcript. That means that excelling later in high school can balance weak academic performance freshman year. If your child recovers from a weak freshman year, admissions officers will see this as positive evidence of their ability to adjust to new academic demands and expectations, an ability that will come in handy during college and beyond.
This applies to extracurriculars as well. Admissions officers look for depth rather than breadth in your child’s involvement. If they don’t participate in many activities freshman year, your child can still go on to lead or excel in a couple of extracurriculars.
Let’s consider three core elements of your child’s freshman year of high school in more detail. These elements are:
Read on to learn about the weight each of these elements has on your child’s college applications as well as how to make up for weak freshman year performance during their remaining time in high school and within their applications.
Course Selection: How colleges look at academic rigor
The courses your child takes freshman year matter as much if not more than the grades they receive in those courses. Why? While most colleges don’t have minimum GPA requirements, they do want your child to have completed a minimum amount of coursework. And at most high schools, freshman courses are prerequisites for more advanced classes. In addition, colleges want to see that your child has challenged themselves by taking tough courses offered by their school. Achieving a high GPA by taking easy courses is not viewed as favorably as achieving a high GPA in hard classes.
On top of that, the courses your child takes freshman year are the foundation for the courses they take in the rest of high school. Choosing courses wisely will help set your child up to take the best classes for their strengths and passions later on.
For instance, if your child is interested in art but their high school doesn’t have an honors or AP course in that subject, your child shouldn’t skip the painting elective freshman year. Instead, your child should enroll in it and find other ways to deepen that interest later on, through community college classes, summer programs or scholarships, or extracurricular activities.
If your child took the “wrong” courses freshman year
How to bounce back during the remainder of high school
If your child didn’t take an ideal course load freshman year, they can still choose to take a challenging course load during the rest of high school. If your child missed a freshman prerequisite for a class they would like to take, they should talk to their guidance counselor to see if there’s a way for your child to test into that class. Your child can also look for summer, online, or community college options.
How your child can strengthen the rest of their application
If extenuating circumstances influenced your child’s course load freshman year they should, if at all possible, have their guidance counselor address this within their letter of recommendation for college. And if your child attends a high school that lacks challenging course options for freshmen, your child’s guidance counselor can also provide that context in their letter.
If your child missed out on taking a course in a subject area that they are comfortable with or interested in, they might consider self-studying for an AP Exam or SAT Subject Test in that area, as a high score on one of those tests will demonstrate your child’s proficiency with the subject. Many students choose to self-study for AP English Language or Literature exams, which test essay-writing ability rather than content, for instance.
GPA: Do freshman grades matter?
Admissions committees are far more likely to be excited about a student who had mediocre grades freshman year and went on to receive stellar grades than they are to admit a student who thrived academically freshman year and then declined.
(Further reading: How College Admissions Committees Actually Evaluate GPAs)
Colleges understand that your child might enter high school not yet knowing what they’re passionate about, or coming from a middle school that didn’t prepare your child as well as their classmates’ junior high schools did. Taking the first year as a chance to scope out their new world, learn its ways, and then ace it, is much better than starting strong and losing interest or momentum. An underdog story is never a bad one!
Most universities will consider your child’s overall high school GPA, but will always consider their GPA and transcript together, meaning that an admissions officer will see if your child’s grades have improved over time.
While most admissions officers will not simply forgive low freshman year grades, they will be more understanding of them than they will be of low grades in upper-level coursework. Your child’s sophomore, junior, and senior year coursework is more predictive of your child’s ability to succeed in college courses.
There are some universities that do not even factor your child’s freshman year grades into the GPA they consider during admissions. The University of California (UC) system, for instance, considers a GPA that is calculated from freshman summer through junior spring, meaning both your child’s freshman and senior year grades don’t factor into your GPA at all. Nevertheless, UC admission officers do take freshman and senior year course choice into account. In the past, Stanford University and McGill University have also considered applicant GPAs minus freshman year grades.
In short, your child’s freshman year grades may be considered during admissions but only as part of the overall picture of their academic achievement—never in isolation. A weak freshman GPA will not rule your child out as an applicant.
Getting into college when your child’s freshman GPA is weak
How to recover from bad freshman year grades
If your child is worried about their freshman year GPA, they should focus on improving it by excelling in their remaining high school coursework. And don’t assume your child should take easy classes in order to cushion their GPA.
Many high schools weight grades in AP and other honors classes—meaning that a high grade in one of those classes will especially offset earlier lower grades. Plus, the types of classes your child takes still matter—frequently more than the grade itself.
Admissions officers often read applications regionally, meaning the person reading your child’s application will know something about your school. If it’s common knowledge that Environmental Science is an easy A, while AP Chemistry is a challenging option, your child will be rewarded for an A-minus in Chemistry more than an A-plus in the former.
Your child might also consider enrolling in online coursework or classes at your local community college. In addition to potentially boosting your child’s GPA (if their high school factors outside coursework into their calculation of GPA), this can demonstrate your child’s commitment to their education and help them excel in their remaining high school classes.
Holistic admissions: Looking at the bigger picture
Remember that admissions officers make holistic decisions based on your child’s entire application. If your child received weak grades early on in high school but went on to attain excellent grades, receive high test scores, write distinct college essays, complete a handful of extracurriculars, and develop relationships with teachers and administrators who write glowing letters of recommendation, then admissions officers are likely to view low grades freshman year not just as a “fluke,” but as a setback your child overcame to thrive in high school. If your child is stressed about their GPA, they should use that energy to focus on other parts of their application.
If the challenges of your child’s freshman year were truly significant, they might consider writing about it in their Common App Essay, Common App Additional Information section, or supplemental college essays. But that’s totally optional. Your child shouldn’t feel that they have to apologize for or explain low freshman year grades within their essays or elsewhere in the application.
Another way to explain freshman year grades is through your child’s counselor’s recommendation letter. Yale University, for instance, tells students an explanation from a counselor or another school official is more valuable than notes in the Common App Additional Information section. A counselor can explain how your child went on to succeed despite their circumstances, demonstrating resiliency and drive, without seeming defensive, as your child might if they wrote it themselves.
Extracurricular Activities: Demonstrate a deep commitment
Getting involved with clubs, societies, and teams freshman year gives your child a chance to dive deep into an area of interest. Joining early can help them achieve and assume leadership roles within those organizations as an older student. However, sophomore or junior year is not too late to become more involved in your child’s high school, town, or state community.
If you’re concerned about your child’s freshman year extracurricular involvement
How your child can bounce back during their remaining time in high school
Your child should not overcorrect for a low-activity freshman year by joining as many activities as possible later on. They risk seeming scattered and unfocused. Instead, they should select few extracurriculars that are meaningful to them. Anywhere from two to six extracurriculars can be a great number, but it’s the quality and not the quantity of their involvement that matters.
What activity will give your child the chance to really make the most of their talents and interests? If during freshman year, your child devoted most of their time to one demanding primary activity, such as a sport or musical instrument, they should not feel they have to take time away from that activity simply to pad their list of extracurriculars.
Is there a way to supplement your child’s core extracurricular activity? For example, if they spend most of their time playing soccer, they might find time to volunteer at soccer camps for younger children or to referee youth games. Or, if they play violin in a youth orchestra, they might share their talent by performing or giving lessons in a local venue like an elementary school or a retirement home. If your child pursues what is truly meaningful or exciting to them, this will come across in their application.
Summer and school breaks are also opportunities for your child to become more involved in the community. Over the summer, they might follow an interest they haven’t found an outlet for within their school community. Maybe they’re interested in politics, science, or creative writing. They could volunteer for a political campaign, intern at a local hospital, or write a play. It’s even better if your child can then somehow bring that involvement back to their school community in the fall. For example, your child might recruit other students to get involved politically or direct a production of their play with the high school theatre troupe.
How your child can strengthen the rest of their application
If your child didn’t join many extracurriculars freshman year because they were also balancing employment, familial responsibilities, or medical issues, they can mention this in their application. And the “extracurriculars” they reference in their application do not only have to be typical after-school activities. For example, a part-time job or religious involvements should be included.
Admissions officers want to know who your child is as a student and community member. They recognize that your child is not defined by their freshman year. The best way to recover from a “weak” freshman year is to give admissions officers a full picture of who they are now.