Top 10 Things Colleges Want to See in Your Teen's Transcripts

College admissions officers review high school transcripts
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Choosing a good college - and then getting accepted - can be a stressful and highly competitive process and there seems to be a lot of misconceptions about what stands out to college admissions officers. While some parents want their teen to look well-rounded in terms of extracurricular activities, other parents encourage their teen to focus solely on academics. Here are the things colleges are really looking for in your teen’s transcripts:

1. Challenging Courses

Admissions counselors want to see courses that will lead your teen toward a solid academic career. This doesn’t mean that the only chance to get into a good college is for your teen to load up on advanced math or science courses or AP courses. If academic courses are your teen’s strength, though, then play to her strength. If your teen doesn’t enjoy the heavier academic courses, don’t fill her electives with courses she isn’t likely to do well in. Instead, choose courses that will show your teen’s strengths while also preparing her for college.

2. Solid Standardized Test Scores

This doesn’t mean that that your teen’s scores need to be in the top 1 percent, top 10 percent or even in the top 20 percent. Grades and test scores are only two measures out of several that admissions counselors look at when making their decisions. Not all students test equally well. While grades show the consistency of effort over time, standardized tests, like the SATs, only show how well a student does in this particular type of test.

3. Good or Improving GPA

This is every student’s dream. But not every student will have a sterling transcript. Admissions counselors are also looking for grades that show an improvement. If your teen’s GPA isn’t stellar, you can write a letter explaining why her GPA wasn’t up to her usual abilities. A recent crisis, like a death in the immediate family, or a move to a new district could help explain the issue.

4. Involvement in Extra-Curricular Activities

Skill-building activities outside school such as music, dance or other lessons show favorably on your teen’s transcript. So does participation in school activities such as being on the school newspaper or magazine, participation in the drama club, participation in language clubs, math club or in student body activities. These activities speak toward your teen’s breadth of skills and his ability to juggle commitments.

5. Community Service Involvement

Being involved in the community will show the admissions team your teen’s character and that she cares about the world around her and can juggle multiple commitments. Being involved in a community center, volunteer work, or in church group speaks to this strength.

6. Employment History 

Nothing teaches what the real world is like better than a part-time job during the school year or a summer job. Teens who successfully negotiate the demands and time-commitments of going to school and working are more likely to have the life skills necessary to juggle the demands of college.

7. Strong Essay

The essay showcases your teen’s writing skills and can impress the admissions team about who your teen is. It’s important for your teen to be genuine, however. If writing doesn’t come easily to your teen, then you or another adult should look over the essay and proof it before your teen hits “Send.”  

8. Strong School Recommendations

It is best for your teen to give his teacher plenty of advance notice, and also to remind his teacher what he enjoyed about the class, what he learned from the class, any challenges he overcame and of any special projects he was involved in.

9. Solid Recommendations from Other Adults

This could include church or community or scout leaders, or teachers outside of school. Recommendations from other community members can speak to your teen's character and involvement in the community.

10. Awards

Awards such as honors, mentions of outstanding contributor or other evidence of your teen’s uniqueness that your teen got at school or achieved when participating in outside activities or community service would work well here.

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