To parents and high school students, the question of how to get into college might seem increasingly complicated, but experts in the field say the answer remains simple: Get good grades.
Former University of Pennsylvania dean of admissions Eric J. Furda, who co-authored the new book "The College Conversation: A Practical Plan for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education," told TODAY Parents, "The straightforward answer is that grades do matter over the trajectory of a student's high school years."
Furda pointed out that in the 2019 National Association for College Admissions Counseling published "State of College Admissions" survey report, the college application factors ranked highest in importance in decisions by more than 70% of the participating college admissions offices were "grades in all courses" and "grades in college prep courses."
"Academic performance in high school has been the most important consideration in freshman admission decisions for decades," the report asserted.
But the answer is not quite as simple as getting report cards full of As. Just as important as the grades themselves, Furda noted, was "gauging the strength of curriculum" on a student's transcript.
A student's grade point average (GPA) means nothing to admissions officers without context, University of Virginia admissions dean Jeannine Lalonde, aka DeanJ, explains in posts on social media.
"Methodologies differ so much that it's impossible to know an applicant's academic story from the GPA. GPAs are not standardized," Lalonde wrote in a blog post for the UVA admissions blog, "Notes from Peabody."
"Two students with identical GPAs could have very different coursework and grades on their transcripts. This is why we talk about the transcript being the most important factor in understanding your academic preparation," she said. "The GPA attempts to summarize the work you've done, but we use the courses and grades on the transcript to fully understand your academic strength."
So while it's important to get the passing (or better) grades in high school, it's also important what those high school courses are and how much mastery of a subject they demand.
Bestselling author Jeffrey Selingo spent a year in three different colleges' admissions offices when reporting for his book "Who Gets In and Why," which was named one of the 100 notable of 2020 by the New York Times.
After observing how admissions decisions were made at the University of Washington, Emory University, and Davidson College, Selingo said it was clear what made the biggest difference in applicant outcomes.
"The courses you take in high school and the grades you get in them matter more than anything else in the application," he told TODAY Parents. "Admissions officers are looking for grades that are either consistently good throughout high school or on a steady rise from the start. What concerns them is a downward trend or where grades are all over the place."
At some universities, especially large public state universities, the grades and rigor of the transcript will matter even more, because their review processes might be less holistic. Others might take essays and writing, leadership and community engagement, interviews, and other factors such as teacher recommendations into account when they review applications.
Knowing their GPAs matter might create stress for high school students trying to make the grade. Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech, has some advice that might help.
"Simply put — BE A GOOD HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT," he wrote for the Georgia Tech Admissions blog. "Work hard each day in the classroom. Push and challenge yourself academically. Learn to create a functional base of knowledge — and be curious about what you don’t know. Contribute to your school, family, and community.
"College admission reps will use a lot of words — A LOT — to say all of this," Clark added, "but essentially a good college applicant is a good high school student."