My saddle fitter can tell me exactly how my horse has been going by reading the sweat marks on my saddle pad. It’s no joke – he’s always amazed me with the details he’s able to ascertain just by looking at where the sweat falls and where there are patches of clean pad.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, his full time job is to work with horses and riders to make sure that the equipment they use is comfortable for both and that it aids their work rather than hindering it. He reads hundreds upon hundreds of saddle pads each year as he travels around the country and over to Europe fitting saddles, so is it really any wonder that he’s able to perform the task with such accuracy?
College admissions counselors are similar when it comes to reading the high school transcripts of the students who apply to their institutions. Whereas you might look over your transcript and just see that you got an A in geography and a B minus in pre-calculus, an admissions counselor reads between the lines and sees where you chose to challenge yourself (and where you took the easy way out!), as well as how prepared you truly are for a college education. And when read in conjunction with the rest of the parts of your application, there’s a good chance they’re going to know more about you than you might think they do when they’re finished.
Want some examples?
Here goes. Now, it’s been a while since I read dozens of applications per day during the height of the fall admissions frenzy, but I still use my transcript-reading skills when counseling client families. So when I read a transcript for the first time, here’s what I see:
- Your grades. This is obvious – your grades over the course of your high school years (and possibly a few from eighth grade) appear on your transcript. The difference between you and your parents looking at your grades, however, and me looking at your grades is that, whereas you see that you’ve gone up in your math score since last semester or that your GPA was aided by your English final last spring, I look past your individual grades and see a grade trend. Admissions counselors don’t care as much about that one English final as they care that you’ve had strong grades in English since ninth grade and that you’ve challenged yourself during junior and/or senior year by moving into AP English or an honors-level course. In fact, if you had straight A’s as a ninth and tenth grader but saw the grades slip to a B because you chose to take the more challenging course, many admissions counselors prefer to see that shift because it means that you tested yourself at a higher level and didn’t choose an easier course to protect your GPA.
- Your strengths. Along with your grade trend, admissions counselors can see where your true strengths and interests lie. For example, you might have listed “biology” and “pre-med” on your application when asked what career field you’re interested in pursuing, but your aptitude for your social studies work and your clearly written essay might suggest that you are better suited for a career in law or business. Now, there’s certainly every chance in the world that you’re passionate about the sciences and will indeed pursue medical school placement one day, but if your history grades are straight A’s and your biology, chemistry, and physics grades have hovered near a C during your high school career, the admissions counselor will consider the fact that 80 percent of college students change their major each year and (perhaps accurately) assume that you’re going to be among their number. Will it hurt your chances of admission? Probably not – but depending on the applicant pool and each individual’s schools policies, you might receive an email that urges you to resubmit your application to a different program in order to have the best chance of admission. If that happens, you’ll have a decision to make – or possibly more than one decision.
- Your level of college preparation. Not only are your grades on your transcript, but the names and course descriptions of the classes that you took while earning those grades also appear. High schools send academic profiles that feature their course listings, AP and IB offerings, Honors programs, and other pertinent information to each college admissions office so that students who apply can be evaluated appropriately within the context from which they come. This helps students in many cases, as it prevents a student from a very small, rural high school with no AP coursework available from being unfairly disadvantaged in the admissions process by students from top private high schools with full AP and honors tracks at their disposal. But if you’re one of those students who didn’t challenge yourself despite having those opportunities available (see the first bullet point), you might not get as much credit from those same admissions counselors.
- Your level of follow through. Remember that transcripts also record your number of absences and tardies from Day One of your high school career. Do absences and tardies on their own hinder your chances of admission to college? Not as a general rule (so no need to worry about the week you missed with the flu last year), but taken as part of a larger picture, if you have weak grades and have missed a lot of Fridays and Mondays while you’ve traveled to and from horse shows, colleges can develop a pretty good idea of where your priorities lie. (Hint: They aren’t with your school work.) One college riding coach used to tell me, “Show me a C student and I’ll see a student completely dedicated to her riding. Show me an A student and I’ll see someone who needs more saddle time.” Now, while the coaches all want the best riders for their teams, they also want to recruit students who will do well at the college level – and who have the grades to be admitted in the first place! So if you have a lot of absences and a 4.0 GPA, you have nothing to fear from the admissions committee; meanwhile if your GPA is hovering around a 2.0 with that many absences, you might have some additional explaining to do…
Is your high school transcript the singular item that’s going to either lift your college dreams up or crush them in a single blow? Not necessarily. If you’re applying to Goucher College in Maryland, they don’t even require a transcript if you prefer to send a two-minute video detailing your qualifications instead. Meanwhile, countless other schools do expect to see your transcript when you apply and it’s going to be thoroughly evaluated.
Still, college admissions is a process that’s part science and part art, which presents both a challenge to high school students as well as an opportunity. Work hard to put together a transcript that truly represents your capabilities and you’ll have a lot of opportunities open to you when your college decisions arrive.