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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 of high school with a tinge of concern. Worries about their freshman year grades, courses, and extracurriculars may lead to questions like, “Will colleges look at my freshman year of high school?” Well, luckily for those students, we’ve got just the answer!
If you want to learn how freshman year of high school can potentially impact your college admissions, keep on 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 one’s sophomore, junior, and senior years. While this is typically true, it doesn’t mean that students should entirely dismiss the importance of their freshman year.
So, in what ways is freshman year important? Simply – freshman year sets the foundation of the rest of your high school career. The courses and grades one receives freshman year determine their courses the next year. Sophomore year classes determine their courses for junior year, and so on. Thus, one’s freshman year classes (and how they performed in them) shapes 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.
However, what 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?
When colleges look at your freshman year, or any year, the classes that you took will be an important factor. Such classes give “context” to your GPA (you’ll see what we mean by that soon!). They provide a basis for your future classes. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how your freshman year classes do just that.
Freshman classes put your GPA into context
Throughout high school, just as important as one’s grades are the academic rigor of their courses. “Academic rigor” refers to how challenging or difficult the classes one is taking are. So, as expected, AP and honors classes are typically considered more “academically rigorous” than their regular (non-honors/AP) course counterparts.
How is rigor relevant to college admissions? Well, colleges want to see that students are challenging themselves. Performing well in AP or honors courses may signal to colleges that students are more ready for college-level work than performing well in regular, non-honors/AP courses. Thus, the courses you take “put your GPA into context.” Those courses 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
Besides assessing academic rigor, freshman year courses are also important as they create a foundation for one’s future classes. As mentioned before, the classes you take (and grades you receive) will impact those you take in subsequent years. And, to tie it all in, these future courses are assessed for “academic rigor” when it comes to college admissions.
So, what if you feel like you’ve “messed up” by taking relatively easier courses freshman year? Well, you didn’t really mess up. It’s perfectly fine to want a somewhat easier transition into a completely different school environment. However, 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, perhaps ask if you could (1) test into the classes or (2) make up for what you missed over the summer. Alternatively, you can take courses at a local community college to make up for what you missed – there’s always another way!
GPA: Are my freshman year grades important?
One’s freshman year grades are important, but not in the way that one might expect. Colleges are generally more forgiving of low grades received in one’s freshman year. So, although colleges look at freshman year grades, it is 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. This is especially so during your sophomore or junior years.
So, if you received low grades in your freshman year, your best bet is to show drastic improvement in the next three years (along with extracurricular involvement, etc.). Everyone loves the underdog – and colleges do too.
With that said, however, we want to clarify that it’s 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 – even if a student does improve. So, if you can, certainly try to keep your grades up in freshman year (and beyond).
Also see: High school and college GPA guide
Recovering from low freshman year grades
Let’s say that you did receive relatively low grades in freshman year. How can you recover?
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 (remember “academic rigor?”).
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. This means that, 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, college admissions officers typically read applications regionally. Thus, the officer who reviews your application will likely be somewhat familiar with your high 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 those at a local community college. You can either retake past courses to receive a new grade, or take entirely new courses to get a head start on some of 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 extracurricular involvement. Involvement and showing passion for a club or cause early on helps you earn a spot (maybe even president!) of a school organization’s board later in high school.
So, is a lack of involvement in your freshman year a problem? Not necessarily – you still have plenty of time. 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 (career or otherwise). Choosing extracurriculars doesn’t need to be as difficult as it seems. If you’re particularly passionate about one thing (e.g. a sport, instrument, or subject), it’s okay if multiple of your extracurriculars revolve around that! For example, if you love tennis and are on your school’s tennis team, consider volunteering to help out at a tennis class or camp for younger kids. Alternatively, if you love playing the piano and have been playing for years, volunteer to play at local venues, schools, or even retirement homes. This way, you’ll enjoy what you’re doing all the while “beefing up” your extracurriculars.
Depth versus breadth
We’d recommend that you also consider depth versus breadth. Have you heard the term well-rounded? In the college admission context, this refers to students whose activities list tends to be longer because it shows breadth across a variety of activities. In contrast, some admission officers use the term “pointed.” For these students, their activities list shows depth in one activity by, as the example above shows, pursuing one activity in multiple venues. Depth is not more or less important than breadth, but just something we want you to consider as you decide how you choose your activities.
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. Participating in extracurriculars over the summer will allow you to dedicate more time to the activity. Perhaps you will learn about (or get involved in) something new that isn’t available at your school. If you end up starting something over the summer and getting heavily interested in it, it may even be 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.
Last, but not least, remember that extracurricular activities do not 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?
School is inherently difficult; having to constantly study, prepare for exams, write essays, and more is bound to take a toll on young students. However, some individuals face even 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 as well as usual, 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 freshman year grades.
Perhaps you are a high school junior whose freshman year was impacted by the pandemic? If so, there is a special section on the Common App to share your experiences with the universities and colleges you apply to.
If you’d prefer not to write about your hardships yourself, but still want colleges to understand this “fluke” in your transcript, reach out to your school counselor. They will be able to explain these extenuating circumstances when writing your recommendation letter to colleges. This way, colleges will better understand your circumstances when they look at your freshman year. They can also elaborate on how you managed to succeed despite such difficult circumstances, showing your drive and will to thrive.
Either way, if you have dealt with such hardships, we hope that things have since improved. And, for all the students reading, we wish you the best in your school (and life) journeys, and send you off. Remember, although colleges do look at your freshman year, it’s not the be-all end-all. Good luck!
Frequently asked questions
Will one “C” ruin my GPA in high school?
How much weight do colleges place on freshman year grades?
Can a strong freshman year GPA make up for weaker grades in later years?
Can I explain any extenuating circumstances that affected my freshman year grades in my college application?