One of the first and most frequent questions heard in high school counseling offices is: “do transcripts or test scores matter more in college admissions?” The answer is generally immediate: the transcript. A transcript is the record of a student’s work over four years. The transcript is the record of a student’s effort, energy, and commitment in the long term. A test taker can have a bad or stellar day, but with only a handful of test days per year, from an admissions perspective, it would be risky at best and unfair at worst to give greater weight to admissions tests. (The need to consider other admissibility measures is one reason the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success has been in the news.)
Thus, it makes sense to look at the transcript the way admissions professionals do. High school college counselors and college admissions officers know there is great information that can be inferred from carefully analyzing a transcript.
Most obviously, a transcript reveals trends in a student’s academic performance. An upward GPA trend is obviously better than a downward one. The preference is a student who starts slower and improves, rather than a quick starter who fades toward the end.
As useful as identifying trends is using the transcript to observe how a student learned from any academic setbacks. For instance, if a student receives a low grade, do they rise to the occasion in their next encounter with the subject, or do they try to shield themselves from any contact with the subject in the future?
Additionally, transcripts measure the rigor of a student’s schedule. Most high schools include a school profile when sending transcripts to colleges. Profiles often include a list of the most advanced subjects offered in each academic area. Admissions officers use the transcript to examine how a student chose to challenge him or herself in light of the profile. The more selective the college, the more rigor they will expect to see. College admissions officers understand some courses are tougher than others, and also that it is the rare person who is good at everything. But they want to see that a student is not afraid to try to challenge themselves.
Whether consciously or not, when they evaluate transcripts, most college admissions officers apply John Dewey’s observation that “growth depends upon the presence of difficulty to be overcome by the exercise of intelligence.”
Submitted by Damien High School, La Verne, CA