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More Than a Grade: What Colleges Really Look For in a Student

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Ah, high school, “the best four years of your life,” as the saying goes. With all the hustle and bustle of new teachers, friends, and everything in between, it all depends on what you make of it. In my case, my high school experience thus far has been a rather interesting one. As a self-proclaimed “gifted kid burnout,” I have had many highs as well as many lows, academically speaking.

Within the past three years of my high school career, I have failed at least once in every math class I’ve taken, BS-ed my way through sciences, and even failed a creative writing class, which is a pretty appalling statement. Not to mention, junior year was, in fact, as bad as the seniors said. But, I have also gained many strengths in and out of school. I wrote my first print article in the tenth grade, gained awesome facilitation skills, was on editing staff for the school literary magazine, learned how to write a resume, and even got my first job. As an intern, no less. Not many can say that was their first job at seventeen!

This isn’t to say that academics are not important, because they are. However, one should not have their entire life based on what goes on between four walls for about eight hours each day. There is a need for balance between academics and extra-curricular activities. Whether you aspire to be Harvard bound or are comfortable with community college, everyone’s a little concerned about life after high school, especially if your grades aren’t the best but you’re strong in other areas, like the arts or athletics. Yes, colleges do love a hefty 4.5 GPA, but if the most you’ve done outside of winning the school science fair every year is… well, nothing, then you might want to up your game. Take up a new hobby, become active in the community, do volunteer work! All these things can provide balance for you, if you do it well.

And for those with a 3.0 and below, don’t worry too much (okay, maybe a LITTLE bit). Don’t make as many mistakes as I did. Ask teachers for help in subjects you’re struggling with. They didn’t get that Master’s Degree for nothing. If they even have it, that is. Go to your friends for help too, because that’s what friends are for, right? And most importantly, do not procrastinate. I am a subject of procrastination and I’m entering my senior year with a 2.9 GPA. Yes, it’s very shocking to believe. I can physically feel you wincing at that statement. But, seriously. Get things done on time so you don’t have to stress later.               

Teens have begun joining more after-school programs, such as business and leadership groups in order to become well-rounded and prepare young people to become strong leaders in post-secondary life. By actively practicing skills such as networking and community outreach, teens have gotten a head start on their future endeavors. Becoming active in school clubs is also a big help, as students can earn cords at graduation ceremonies for participation in addition to, of course, gaining new experiences.

In no way am I saying that joining every after-school club humanly possible will help you save face when it’s time to apply for college, but then again, maybe it will. Who’s to say? My point is, as I said before, being a well-rounded student is all about balance. You just have to have focus and determination.                     

You’re also probably wondering what college admissions recruiters and officers are thinking as well (yes, I’m looking at you, my fellow rising seniors). Is it really all about grades to them, or are these recruiters hoping to find the esteemed multifaceted student that they could only dream of? To get the inside scoop, I spoke with Latrina Fisher, Spelman College’s Associate Director of Admissions, as well as Georgia Tech’s Stephanie Douglas, Assistant Director of Community Relations about how they feel about students when it comes to the importance of GPAs and academic endeavors, as well as their idea of a well-rounded student.

VOX ATL: There’s a lot of pressure on students to get good grades. How important is a student’s GPA to the college admission process?

Latrina Fisher: The GPA is extremely important in that it is a score that’s built up over a number of years, so at the time of application, we usually have about three years of grades. That is where we key in on how well the student has been doing in class. We’re looking at the types of courses, not only general education courses, but also if they have challenged themselves with Honors, Dual Enrollment or AP courses, so GPA plays a huge role in our admissions decisions.

Stephanie Douglas: It really depends on the college that you plan on attending, and although I believe that many colleges do look at GPA, I know there are institutions of higher learning that are pretty elite and have lower admission rates, say, 30 percent or below, that are a little bit more specific or particular about their students. There tends to be a lot of students that have 4.0 [GPAs] or even higher, and even at a great place like Georgia Tech where all of our students are very bright, there have to be [things that stand out] about them besides great academics.

VOX ATL: How do you think academic culture has changed now that students are taking different approaches to post-secondary education, such as gap years and two-year institutions?

Fisher: I’ve been seeing a growing number of students taking gap years for a variety of reasons, one being to study abroad or just to explore some options post-high school that do not involve going to college. So that may be going to work to raise some money to pay for college or if they are in a better situation, we see students wanting to just go to different enrichment programs either abroad or within the United States that gain a little more insight on the discipline they are looking to study once they get into college.

Overall, I do see another portion of students attending two-year institutions. The cost of college is rising. So, those financial decisions really play a huge role after acceptance, and parents and students often have to come to reality as to what they can and cannot pay for. So, for some of those students who are able to look further down the line and map out their trajectory, they may chose to do the two-year option, save some money, get the general education courses they need that transfer all over the nation for them, and often times they find themselves in better financial situations. Because of that, they come in more mature, more focused on what they would like to do to finish out their degree.

Douglas: It’s changed a lot. When I came out of school, you were expected to go right into college or right into a job. Now, with the digital age and being able to have information at your fingertips so much quicker, that has allowed for a slowdown of, “oh, I need to hurry up and get into a school and learn this particular trade,” because it’s so easy to learn things from the Internet and from certain trainings that you can learn in a shorter amount of time than four years, so things have definitely changed. There’s been a recognition that not everybody needs to go to a four-year school, and because of that, more attention has been given to some of our community colleges and some of our other two-year institutions that are teaching students trades as opposed to four-year. Now, is the four-year just as important? Certainly, it is. Is the four-year still very vibrant? Definitely. It’s not something that’s going to die out any time in the near future. But, it certainly has changed over the years. Students definitely look at things differently and take their time deciding what they want to do and where they want to go for school.

VOX ATL: What is your idea of a well-rounded student?

Douglas: My idea of a well-rounded student is someone who is healthy. And, when I say healthy, I mean spiritual health, physical health, mental, and definitely having a balance in their activities. The reason why I believe that a healthy student is a well-rounded student is because your body does not start to break down until you are not getting enough rest or you’re not eating properly or taking care of yourself. Now, there are times when, say, something traumatic happens, you know, loss of a family member or something like that, your body will behave in a certain way and will be affected. That’s normal grief, normal loss, and that’s something that’s acceptable and that even research will show that it’s OK for your body to go into that state for a short amount of time. But, when you get into a constant schedule of chaos or stress, that really does start to wear on you and become damaging. So, my idea of a well-rounded student is a healthy student.

Through the hustle and bustle of the wacky world of academia, it’s important to remember to remain grounded through it all. Don’t let the little things discourage you and work hard to be the best student you can be.

For more, including interviews with Atlanta-area teens, listen to the accompanying VOXCast episode below:

Amariyah, 17, is a senior at DeKalb School of the Arts and plans on majoring in Multimedia Journalism when she goes to college.

Photo by Amariyah Callender


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