The College Conversation: Making the grade before college

Daily Pilot

Here's a conversation starter: Low end-of-year grades can spell disaster when it's your child's turn to apply to colleges.

Actually, they can also be devastating for those second-semester seniors who are itching for college to start. As the end of the school year approaches, encourage your children to keep pushing through that last final exam. If they need convincing, use the following ammunition to back you up.

It's clear that grades and rigorous classes matter in college admissions, but what's often overlooked is the importance of second semester grades.

Colleges like to see a student finish the year strong. It shows perseverance and commitment. It also gives them a sense of how serious the student will be during the spring semester of college — a time when weather improves and outdoor activities beckon.

Let's look at the impact of second-semester grades by high school year.

Ending the freshman year with low grades can affect your child's ability to take higher-level classes in subsequent high school years. In other words, a "C" in ninth-grade English makes it difficult for a student to be recommended for honors English in the sophomore year. By not taking honors English in 10th grade, your child will be ill-prepared for AP English in 11th grade, and you know what that means for 12th. Not advancing into higher-level classes will make it tough to gain admission to the more selective colleges. There's a real domino effect when freshman-year grades suffer. If your child claims that freshman-year grades don't matter to colleges, nip that myth in the bud. Most out-of-state colleges and private universities will use freshman year grades in their GPA calculation for admission, even though the UC and CSU systems won't.

Sophomore year is the first real indication to the colleges about a student's academic potential. As courses become more rigorous, they want to see a clear, upward grade trend. I always tell my clients that sophomore year lays the foundation for success in the later high-school years.

For juniors in particular, strong grades at the end of the year are critical. This will literally determine whether or not your child will be a good candidate for applying for early action or early decision to colleges in the fall. These application plans, while not offered by all colleges, allow a student to apply by early November and get a decision before winter break. If the junior year grades slip second semester, colleges will most likely hold off on making their final decision on your child's candidacy until they evaluate the first-semester, senior-year grades.

Trust me, you want the luxury of a college acceptance before winter break. Colleges must have a crystal-clear picture of your child's academic abilities and trust his or her study habits enough to know that he or she can handle the challenge of a rigorous college curriculum. Why would a college choose to accept a student who will end up on academic probation or drop out after the first year?

And for seniors, if they blow off their last semester of high school, it could mean a college will rescind their admission. If their grades do not align with the academic record by which the college based the initial admission decision, they're digging their own graves. Encourage them to keep going to class, completing homework and studying for exams. They will have to send a final transcript to their selected college and those grades will be reviewed.

This conversation doesn't exclude students who are bound for community college. Low grades in high school often translate into low grades in college. A small fraction (studies show less than 10%) of students who enter community college with low high-school grades ever earn the coveted associate's degree (the degree offered by community colleges). Ending each high-school semester strong is a skill needed for all college students. And, community college is still college.

Remember — the high school transcript is the main document that colleges will use to create a mental picture of what that student will be like in the college classroom. Roller coasters mean inconsistent study habits. Leveling down means a student cared more about grades than rigor, couldn't handle a tough class, or had a hard time balancing life with school.

So, cloister your child in her bedroom for the next 10 days so she can nail those final exams. Or at the very least, do your best to limit their extracurricular activities.

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