By Charlene Liebau
College Admissions Editor
Grades–good grade –are the purview of teachers, the expectation of parents, and the hope and prayer of students.
For college-bound students there is no denying grades are important. In fact, most college admission officers agree the single most important part of an application is the student’s transcript–the record of courses taken and grades received. With grade inflation running rampant in American high schools one’s rank in class, along with grade point average, has become an important ingredient in assessing a college application. Most often, class rank is determined by taking into consideration achievement level (grades) and the degree of rigor of the courses studied. While two students may have the same number of As and Bs on their transcripts, the student who has taken honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate level classes will have points added to the grade point average and thus have a higher “weighted” rank in the class. Thus, a student with a record of As in AP level courses may well have a grade point average of 4.3 on a 4.0 scale.
Weighted grade point averages are helpful because they give a boost, and thus encouragement, to students to take the most rigorous courses available. And, they are helpful in making admission decisions because colleges are eager to enroll the best prepared students.
Colleges and universities, including the most highly selective, do not expect a student to enroll in all classes at the advanced level. True, there are a few students who can handle such a schedule and remain an active participant in school, contribute hours to community service, play a sport at the varsity level and be first chair in the orchestra, and still have time to be the lead in the school play. But such student profiles are truly the exception. Colleges seek students who perform well in a challenging program, but who also have the time and energy to contribute to their community in meaningful ways.
A focus on grades can have an important and negative impact on a student’s level of motivation. If the expectation is to “get an A in every class” the student may be reluctant to challenge him/herself. Instead, the approach will be to take the safe, easy route. This is not the route to being well prepared for success in college.
What I am touching on are the two extremes fostered by focusing on grades. On one hand, the goal of the highest possible grades may lead to undertaking an unreasonable number of advanced level courses only to suffer under the weight of it all. On the other hand, a focus on grades may cause the student to put limits on him/herself – to fear taking on a challenge. Here, the loss is failure to reach one’s potential.
The fixation on grades, and the pressures surrounding them, has significant impact for an individual student and for all of society. Evidence of this is the increasing incidence of plagiarism and cheating–national scandals among our brightest students.
Most importantly, an unhealthy concern with grades can distort the learning process. Bottom line: Learning is the goal. Grades should be viewed as the byproduct of the learning process.
Charlene Liebau is the former director of admissions for CalTech and Occidental College. She is also a finalist judge of the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.