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    Do Colleges Look at Freshman Year of High School?

    By Lisa Freedland

    Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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    and Varonika Ware

    Varonika Ware is a content writer at Scholarships360. Varonika earned her undergraduate degree in Mass Communications at Louisiana State University. During her time at LSU, she worked with the Center of Academic Success to create the weekly Success Sunday newsletter. Varonika also interned at the Louisiana Department of Insurance in the Public Affairs office with some of her graphics appearing in local news articles.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: January 30th, 2024
    Do Colleges Look at Freshman Year of High School?

    As high school seniors get ready to apply to colleges, they may look back on their freshman year with a tinge of concern. Worries about freshman year grades, courses, and extracurriculars may lead to questions like, “Will colleges look at my freshman year?” Well, luckily for those students, we’ve got just the answer, so keep reading!

    Will freshman year affect my college admissions chances?

    Going into high school, many students hear that freshman year is the “easiest” year. Some think that colleges don’t consider it as much as they do the remaining three years. While this is typically true, it doesn’t mean that students should dismiss the importance of their freshman year. 

    How important is freshman year?

    Freshman year sets the foundation of the rest of your high school career. The courses and grades you receive freshman year determine courses for the next year and continue to build from there. Thus, one’s freshman year classes and grades shape the rest of their high school career. 

    Similarly, involvement in extracurriculars early on helps students earn a spot on a club’s board down the road.

    What if I already finished freshman year?

    If you’ve already finished your freshman year, and feel like you’ve somehow “messed up?” Well, there’s no point worrying about what’s in the past. Rather, it’s best to channel your energy into performing well in your sophomore, junior, and senior years. 

    You still have plenty of time to make up for your freshman year. Remember, colleges love seeing an upward trend! Let’s take a look at the importance of course selection, GPA, and extracurriculars in freshman year.

    See also: Do colleges look at senior year?

    Course selection: Are the classes I take freshman year important?

    Putting your GPA into context

    Throughout high school, academic rigor is just as important as grades or GPA. “Academic rigor” refers to how challenging or difficult the classes you’re taking are. So, as expected, AP and honors classes are typically weighed higher than regular course counterparts. 

    This is important since colleges want to see that students are challenging themselves. Performing well in AP or honors courses tells colleges that students are more ready for college-level work. Thus, the courses you take “put your GPA into context” because they let colleges know whether you earned your grades through easier or harder courses.

    Related: How many AP Classes should I take in high school?

    Providing a foundation for future classes

    Freshman year courses are also important as they create a foundation for one’s future classes. As mentioned before, your classes and grades will impact those you take in subsequent years. And, to tie it all in, these future courses are also assessed for academic rigor.

    So, what if you feel like you’ve “messed up” by taking easier courses freshman year? Well, it’s perfectly fine to want an easier transition when entering a different school environment. Once you get acclimated, find the courses you excel at and get good grades to make honors/AP courses an option for you in the future. 

    Trying to get into Honors/AP courses

    If you’re looking to get onto the Honors/AP track, check with your school counselors to see if you’re missing any prerequisites for higher-level courses. If you are, ask if you could test into the classes or make up for what you missed over the summer. Alternatively, you can take courses at a community college to make up for what you missed.

    GPA: Are my freshman year grades important?

    Freshman year grades are important, but not in the way that you might expect. Colleges are generally more forgiving of low grades received in freshman year and look at them from a more “holistic” viewpoint. While low grades in freshman year won’t drastically decrease your chances of getting into colleges, low grades in other years might. 

    So, if you received low grades in your freshman year, your best bet is to show drastic improvement in the next three years. Everyone loves the underdog – and colleges do too. 

    With that said, we want to clarify that it’s still in your interest to do your best freshman year. While colleges are generally forgiving of students who show improvement after freshman year, low grades are still not ideal. So, if you can, certainly try to keep your grades up.

    Also see: High school and college GPA guide

    Recovering from low freshman year grades

    As mentioned earlier, the best way to show improvement throughout the rest of one’s high school career is by excelling in remaining coursework. However, this doesn’t mean that you should just take relatively easier classes just to boost your GPA. 

    If you can, we recommend trying to excel in honors and AP courses. Not only are these more impressive in terms of academic rigor, but these courses also tend to be weighted. 

    This means that you earn an extra grade point compared to what you would receive in a regular class. For example, receiving an “A” in an Honors or AP course would typically give you 5 grade points toward your GPA rather than 4.

    Further, admissions officers typically read applications regionally, so the one that reviews your application will likely be somewhat familiar with your school. Usually, admissions officers know which classes are relatively easy or hard. This is another reason to not simply opt out of more “difficult” classes.

    Besides taking more AP or Honors courses, another option is to take online courses or attend community college. You can either retake past courses to receive a new grade, or take entirely new courses to get a head start on your graduation requirements. Either way, taking classes outside of your regular school hours will show your commitment to education and improving yourself.

    Related: Do colleges look at weighted or unweighted GPA?

    Extracurricular activities: Do my freshman year activities matter?

    As with courses, extracurricular activities in one’s freshman year are important as they set the stage for one’s future high school involvement. Involvement and showing passion for a club or cause early on helps you earn a spot on a school organization’s board later in high school.

    Fortunately, you still have plenty of time, so when you get back to school sign up! Does this mean that you should involve yourself in as many extracurriculars as possible? Probably not – let’s find out why.

    Quality over quantity

    When it comes to extracurriculars, perhaps it’s best to follow the saying, “Quality over quantity.” Joining as many extracurriculars as possible, especially if they’re seemingly random and unrelated, might hint to colleges that you’re not necessarily interested or passionate about anything. 

    Show your passion 

    The better move is to get more heavily involved in two to six extracurriculars that you’re passionate about. Better yet, choose some things related to your future goals. 

    If you’re particularly passionate about one thing, it’s okay if multiple of your extracurriculars revolve around that! This way, you’ll enjoy what you’re doing all the while beefing up your extracurriculars. 

    Make good use of summer

    If you find that your school year is too busy to take on many extracurriculars, the summer is also a great time to get involved since the school year is over. Perhaps you’ll learn about or get involved in something new that isn’t available at your school. 

    If you end up invested in an activity, it’s a good idea to start an organization or club at your school related to that topic. This will not only look great on your resume, but show great leadership skills and true passion for the activity at hand.

    Remember that extracurricular activities don’t have to be limited to the typical after-school activities. If you had a part-time job or were heavily involved at your local place of worship, include these as well!

    See also: How to get an internship guide

    What if extenuating circumstances negatively impacted my freshman year?

    Some individuals face greater hardships during their time in school which impacts their ability to focus and perform their best. Colleges typically call such hardships “extenuating circumstances.” This can involve anything from dealing with a chronic illness, to serious accidents, to family problems, to death.

    If you dealt with any of these during your freshman year of high school and they impacted your ability to perform, you might want to consider writing about these experiences. The Common App Essay, Additional Information section, or supplemental essays are a good place to share. However, keep in mind that this is totally optional – there is no requirement to explain or apologize for low grades.

    If you’d prefer not to write about your own hardships but still want colleges to understand this “fluke” in your transcript, reach out to your school counselor. They will be able to explain extenuating circumstances when writing your recommendation letter to colleges. This way, colleges will better understand your circumstances and how you managed to succeed despite such difficulties, which shows your drive and will to thrive.

    Either way, if you have dealt with such hardships, we hope that things have improved. And, for all the students reading, we wish you the best in your personal journeys. Remember, although colleges do look at your freshman year, it’s not the be-all end-all.

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Freshman year is the foundation of your future studies in high school, which means they can dictate whether you get placed into honors or AP courses
    • Always try your best to get good grades, but don’t worry too much if your freshman year wasn’t perfect
    • After all, colleges like to see an upward trend in your grades, so learn from previous years to succeed in future ones
    • While classes and grades are important, colleges like to see that you were involved in extracurricular activities
    • Joining a club or other extracurricular early on and sticking to it can indicate passion and dedication to college admission officers
    • If extenuating circumstances have impacted your grades, write about it in your college application or reach out to your counselor to discuss other options

    Frequently asked questions about whether colleges look at freshman year of high school

    Will one “C” ruin my GPA in high school?

    While receiving a “C” will impact your GPA, it will certainly not ruin it. That “C” won’t ruin your chances of getting into college either. However, how leniently colleges view the “C” will largely depend on what grade you received it in. Generally, a “C” freshman year of high school is attributed to the middle to high school “adjustment.” Thus, colleges are more lenient. This is especially if a student shows an upward trend in their grades over the course of high school. 

    Remember, colleges may be a little less willing to forgive a “C” grade in one’s junior or senior year. Colleges may see this as a sign that a student is not as “college-ready” as their peers. However, this does not mean that you’ll be rejected since most colleges review applications holistically. It’s also good to note that receiving a “C” is less “acceptable” at more competitive schools than others- it’s all relative.

    How much weight do colleges place on freshman year grades?

    Grades from your freshman year are weighted the same as grades from your sophomore and junior years when it comes to GPA. However, colleges don’t just look at GPA when they consider your grades. They look at how you performed over time. If you received poor grades your freshman year but then showed improvement, they will take that into consideration. Likewise, if you did well during your freshman year but then saw a decline in grades, they might have some hesitations about how you will perform in the future.

    Can a strong freshman year GPA make up for weaker grades in later years?

    Having a strong freshman year GPA will be helpful when it comes time to apply to colleges. However, it will not make up for lower grades down the road. Colleges are interested in how you progress as a student; they want to see improvement to indicate how you would perform at their school. So, don’t let your freshman year grades make you lazy when sophomore, junior, and senior years roll around!

    Can I explain any extenuating circumstances that affected my freshman year grades in my college application?

    Yes! One great place to incorporate this information is the Additional Information section on the Common App. You can use this to explain circumstances such as family emergencies, medical situations, or economic hardship that may have affected your freshman year grades.


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