Do Colleges Look at Your Freshman Year?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a female student studying outside with her laptop on her lap

Do Colleges Look at Your Freshman Year?

Many high school students shudder at the idea of having their freshman year grades considered on their college applications. It’s impossible to go back and change your academic performance during this time, but you might not have the grades you wish you would’ve received.

Unfortunately, freshman year is often the hardest for students due to the massive transition from grade school to high school. The rigor of classes is higher, the competition seems fiercer, the courses are taught at a quicker pace, and there are additional responsibilities to worry about.

For all of these reasons, it’s not uncommon for students to have a performance they’re not particularly proud of during this year. This leads many people to wonder “do colleges look at your freshman year?”.

On one hand, you have people who claim that colleges consider everything about your academic performance in high school, including your freshman year. Alternatively, you have people claiming that your freshman year is the one year that colleges don’t take into consideration. So, which is it?

Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to cover in this piece. You’ll learn whether colleges look at your freshman year performance and how you can overcome a sub-par performance to increase your chances of getting into the school of your dreams.

Do Colleges Look at Your Freshman Year?

Contrary to what you might have heard (or hoped), colleges do take your freshman year grades into account. You might consider not going any further since you already know the answer to the central question.

However, as with many things college-admissions-related, the answer is a little more complex than it appears at first. Just because you know that colleges take your freshman year into account, you don’t know what significance it has in your overall application. How do admissions officers look at your freshman year in connection with your overall high school performance?

A group of students sharing their works

That’s the more important and complex question. So, what’s the answer? Well, your freshman year acts as the foundation for the following years of high school.

The classes you take and your performance in these courses can set the tone for your sophomore, junior, and even senior year. That’s not to say you can’t overcome setbacks or challenges but rather this initial year has an impact on your overall high school trajectory.

For example, if you join an extracurricular activity your freshman year and remain a participant, you might become a leader by the time you graduate. If you take an advanced history class your freshman year, you could end up taking an AP history course your junior or senior year. On a more tangible level, admissions officers look at your weighted high school GPA which takes your high school grades into account.

However, there’s even more nuance to discuss. The vast majority of universities take what’s known as a holistic approach to their admissions process. In short, this simply means that admissions officers take a wide variety of factors into account when determining whether or not an applicant gets accepted or not.

For example, GPA isn’t the only factor taken into consideration. Instead, colleges look at GPA, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation essays, extracurricular participation, summer programs, essay responses, and much, much more.

Admissions officers will be considering all elements against the total backdrop of a student’s application. The same is true when considering your freshman year GPA. Colleges are going to view your freshman year academic performance in relation to your overall high school narrative.

Did you make the most of the opportunities you were given? Did you always push yourself to take more challenging courses or did you take it easy? How did you improve and grow throughout your high school years? Clearly, admissions officers are only interested in your high school performance as it pertains to your overall high school transcript.

This means that even the worst of freshman year grades can be overcome with strong performance and clear development for the remaining portion of your high school years. Admissions officers will see this recovery as evidence of your perseverance, drive, determination, and growth. All of these characteristics will make you a strong candidate for college as they’re necessary for succeeding at this next level.

To give you a better idea of how your freshman year can impact your chances of getting into college, we’ll break down three primary elements of your freshman year performance:

  • GPA
  • Courses
  • Extracurriculars

GPA: Do my freshman year grades matter?

Yes, your freshman year grades do matter. We’ve already answered the generalized question, so now let’s break things down a little further to give you some deeper insight into the effect of your freshman year GPA. Your academic performance during your first year of high school is truly relative to how you developed and grew later on.

For example, it’s a safe bet that an admissions officer will get more animated about a student who performed sub-par or average during their freshman year but later received fantastic grades later on than from a student who performed well in high school only to have their grades steadily decline over the years.

A two women are conducting an interview

Why? Well, the answer is quite simple. The development and improvement illustrate the characteristics that admissions officers like to see in applicants: a determination to improve, a willingness to challenge yourself, mental fortitude to grow, and more.

Colleges are well aware that students face a wide variety of challenges when entering their freshman year of high school. Some students didn’t go to a grade school that prepared them successfully for the transition.

Other students might have been struggling with motivation during this period of adjustment. All of these possibilities are taken into consideration. And, if you feel the need to address your freshman year directly, you might have an opportunity when responding to the college essay prompts.

Besides, most universities look at an applicant’s overall high school GPA instead of isolating one year of performance. This means that your freshman year grades are factored in but not considered alone. Furthermore, don’t forget that your GPA is considered along with a host of other, equally-weighted components.

Although admissions officers most likely aren’t willing to forget about lower freshman year grades, it does help if these courses were challenging. Keep in mind that the difficulty of a course is relative to the student’s capability.

Admissions officers will take that into consideration as much as possible. Ready for some relieving news? There’s no doubt that your academic performance during your sophomore, junior, and senior years will impact your chances of getting accepted to your dream college much more than your freshman year!

Are there some schools that don’t consider freshman year grades?

Let’s be honest. You’re interested in finding out if there are any schools that don’t take your freshman year into account. In reality, there aren’t any that completely ignore your first year of high school. The University of California does consider a calculated GPA that doesn’t input your freshman year grades.

In fact, UC doesn’t even take senior year grades into account. However, admissions officers at this school still look at the classes you took during your freshman year. So, either way, you slice it, your freshman year still plays a role in whether or not you’ll get accepted into a school.

In the past, Princeton and Stanford also calculated an applicant’s GPA without considering freshman year performance but both universities have stopped that practice.

Overall, you shouldn’t worry too much about your freshman year grades. They are definitely considered when admissions officers review your application. However, they’re never looked at separately from everything else. Poor performance your freshman year isn’t going to be the sole factor you’re ruled out of admittance.

Course Selection: Do colleges look at the courses you take freshman year?

When students first think about how their freshman year might impact their chances of getting into college, GPA is typically where their minds go first. In reality, that’s not the only part of freshman year that admissions officers will take into account. In terms of academic performance, colleges will also look at the types of courses you’re taking.

More specifically, they’ll be paying attention to the academic rigor of the classes. In other words, colleges want to know the difficulty of courses you are taking. There are a few reasons for this. First and foremost, this information puts your GPA into context.

A group of college friends around an outdoor table.

If you’re taking challenging courses your freshman year, a lower GPA will look better than the same GPA earned when taking easier classes. Furthermore, the rigor of your freshman year classes also shows colleges how much you were challenging yourself right out of the gate.

The classes you choose to take freshman year also provide the foundation upon which you build throughout the rest of your high school years. Planning your courses wisely can help set yourself up for success by qualifying you for tougher classes and making the transfer to collegiate-level courses that much easier.

How to recover after not taking the right courses freshman year

If you didn’t set yourself up with the most ideal course load freshman year to set yourself up for success in the following years, there are some things you can do to recover from the setback. You can work double-time to compensate by taking harder courses for the rest of high school.

If you’re missing a key requirement to qualify for a higher-level course, don’t give up right away. There’s always a chance! Speak with your high school counselor to see if you could test into the class or do makeup work during the summer. There might even be online or community college opportunities to complete these prerequisites.

Extracurriculars: Do my out-of-class activities matter freshman year?

Academic performance isn’t the only thing you need to consider for your freshman year. Extracurricular planning early on in high school can put you in a great position to nail the college application process when it comes around.

Participating in sports teams, clubs, outreach groups, societies, and other out-of-class groups gives students a chance to engage with other students and the community at large, learn more about a particular skill, explore an area of interest, and much more.

Admissions officers like to see students who have participated in one or two extracurricular activities throughout their high school years rather than participating in half a dozen for a shorter period of time.

Students working on their projects on a table.

This is where the importance of your freshman year comes into play again. Your first year of high school is the perfect time to test out different extracurriculars that pique your interest before narrowing it down to one or two in which you’ll participate for the next few years.

This shows admissions officers that you can dedicate yourself to something, you developed leadership and teamwork skills, and that you have definitive interests. Just because freshman year is an ideal time to enter into these extracurricular activities, that doesn’t mean your sophomore or junior years are too late.

Freshman Year FAQ

Here’s a quick list of common questions college applicants have about their freshman year and its impact on their admissions chances:

Do my freshman year grades matter?

Yes, your freshman year grades do matter when applying to college. Admissions officers will take your overall high school GPA into consideration which includes your freshman year performance.

Will my freshman year performance hurt my chances of getting into the Ivies?

There’s no reason to believe that your freshman year performance will have an outsized impact on your chances of getting accepted into the Ivy League. All Ivies take a holistic admissions approach, meaning a wide variety of factors are taken into consideration. Your high school GPA is just one small part of this. It’s possible to make up for poor performance during your freshman year with other elements of your application.

What years of high school matter for Ivy League schools?

Ivy League universities look at all years of high school, including your freshman year.

Get a college admissions expert in your corner

Whether you’re just entering into high school or already starting your college admissions process, one of the greatest assets you can have is a college admissions expert supporting you.

AdmissionSight is a leading college entrance specialist with over a decade of experience helping students just like you greatly increase their chances of getting into the college of their choice. We have a proven track record of success with 75% of our students either getting into an Ivy League or Top 10 University. That could be you!

We have the tools to help you ensure your freshman year ends up working to your advantage when applying to college. If you’re already past that stage, we can make sure you overcome any setbacks to secure a spot in the college of your dreams.

But our services expand way beyond that! We can help you plan extracurricular activities, choose summer programs, perfect college essays, get letters of recommendation, and much, much more.

Interested in learning more about us and our services, feel free to contact AdmissionSight for a free consultation. We look forward to the opportunity to work with you!


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