Panel of Experts

Karl Schellscheidt

SAT Prep Expert

  • BSE, Princeton University '90
  • M.A., Secondary Education Seton Hall University '93
  • J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School '00

Fred Hargadon

Dean of Admission

  • Swarthmore College
  • Stanford University
  • Princeton University

Don Betterton

Financial Aid Expert

  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
  • Certified College Planner
  • Principal, Betterton College Planning

Seamus Malin

Admission Expert

  • Harvard University
    Dir. of Financial Aid
    Asst. Dean of Admission
    International Office Director

College Prep: Freshman Year in High School

Seamus Malin -

college admissions expert advice from eprep.comPicture the situation - You’re a freshman in high school, fresh out of grade school and now surrounded with all sorts of new academic and social challenges. What, if anything, should you be doing freshman year to prepare yourself for college admissions? How important are freshman year grades with respect to your college application? These are exactly the questions we put to Seamus Malin, our ePrep guest expert in College Admissions and Planning. Join us for the first in a series with Seamus as we explore the road to college.

College Prep: Freshman Year in High School (transcript)

Karl Schellscheidt: Hi, I’m Karl Schellscheidt. Welcome to ePrep. I’m very excited, I have Seamus Malin here in the studio today. Seamus was nice enough to travel down from Massachusetts to New Jersey to talk with me for a few minutes about college admissions. And the topic that I’d like to start with is freshman year in high school.

Seamus, if you’re a freshman in high school, what are the things that you need to think about, if any, in sort of getting ready to be admitted to a great college?

Seamus Malin: Good question. My first thought is that if you’re a freshman in high school you’re probably 14 and I’d say, “Be 14. Enjoy being 14. You won’t be 14 again.” And you’ve just left 13 so there’s a big leap sometimes in the school if you’re going from a junior high into a 9th grade situation in a four year high school. So there’s a lot of social adjustment. You’re suddenly mixing with people four years older than you are, in addition to the people of your own age. So there’s a lot that’s going on that has nothing to do with college except in subtle ways you can’t see because it begins to develop your character, your capacity to interact with people who are older, more experienced, and so forth, that kind of thing.

However, on the academic side there still are a few things to watch out for. You shouldn’t be overstressing about how you’re going to get into college x or y by any means. Don’t let your parents push you that way, but really start to think about what should I be doing in my course selections that will make sense two and three years down the road? You don’t want to find yourself two years down the road not being in a situation where you can go and do the calculus course you want to do because you neglected to begin good honors mathematics program in the 9th grade.

Similarly I would say, even though this is not as popular an idea, I think it’s a good idea to begin language or continue language if you’ve done it in junior high and get some good language training under your belt because more and more colleges like to see now three to four years of languages, certainly three years of languages. And it’s much better to get the language component done in high school than it is to have to try to start over in college and use up, essentially, electives that you could very well use to much better ends for your own greater, broader education.

Karl Schellscheidt: Okay. Very good. So a file question would be this, in the college admissions process are freshman year grades considered, or are they only considered sort of mildly and have a low weight, or are they considered strongly? What’s the deal? How important are grades freshman year?

Seamus Malin: The grades in freshman year generally are not important. In fact, there are some state university systems which will tell you explicitly that they do not even calculate them into the GPA that they use, because many state universities have GPA formulas that they combine with scores to indicate who’s going to get in, who is not going to get in. And typically in many of those situations they do not include the freshman year program.

Universities that are looking more holistically, similarly they may glance back to see what the course pattern has been, but it’s very rare that a university screening system and admission system is going to be looking to see what somebody was doing at age 14 and hold against them that all of a sudden they stubbed their toe on a tough course freshman year. That’s not going to damage you forever. The real clock is seriously ticking sophomore year, not so much freshman year.

Karl Schellscheidt: Okay. I just want to add a little personal note. I think that in my freshman year I wound up going on a soccer trip and I missed a week of school. And I didn’t realize it at the time but I had missed a test in my history class while I was away. and I had asked my teacher before I left for the trip, “Can I just have the work that I need to do that will help me catch up?” And somehow it never came up that I had missed a test.

And so when I got my grade back that marking period it was a 70 and that was by far the lowest grade I had ever gotten. And I remember being really stressed about it and thinking, “My goodness, my grades are great. I’m on track to get into a great college. This is totally going to mess me up.” And I think that I had the temptation when I went to apply to college to try to explain away that grade.

I mean, I was a freshman, I was a 14 year old kid, I was a good student, and I feel like that really embarrassed me getting that 70. And it was something that stuck with me that as a young kid I guess you don’t have the perspective you should have at times and I felt like that stuck with me for four years. And when I was a senior applying to colleges I almost felt a need to explain why I had gotten a 70 in that class.

Now talking to you I’m realizing now that was completely ridiculous, right?

Seamus Malin: Yeah, all you would do would be drawing attention to it, frankly, whereas most of the universities will just say, “Oh, freshman year, 14 year old. Goodness, what’s going on with 14 year olds?” We all know what’s going on with 14 year olds. They’re all over the place emotionally, right?

Karl Schellscheidt: A lot of things can go on for a 14 year old.

Seamus Malin: A lot of things going on. So a bad grade here and there in the freshman year of high school is not a terrible thing to have happened. The important thing, however, is to be sure that you don’t allow a bad grade in a subject in freshman year to begin to cloud your judgment about what your sequencing of courses should be.

What I mean by that is if you get a bad grade not because you’re off on a trip but because you’re struggling a bit, the important thing is to deal with the struggle and seek help for the struggle and not start making choice selections based on an adverse grade first year that will actually compound the problem later. You say, “Oh my goodness, I better not take any more of this subject. I better stay in the lower level mathematics.” That’s not the answer.

The answer is, “Why am I having this problem?” And get on it now so that I can continue to have challenging program through the rest of my four years.

Not everyone is great at everything but in the very basic things of English and language and mathematics you want to be darn sure that you’re going to be challenged and challenging yourself to the best that you possibly can. So the bad grade freshman year sometimes is a useful warning shot, provided it’s interpreted correctly.

Karl Schellscheidt: Okay. I just want to ask kind of a follow up question now. I had felt the need and I resisted the need to explain that 70 freshman year. Now let’s say I had gotten a 70 in a class junior year, you should still probably resist the temptation to explain something like that on an application.

Seamus Malin: Yes.

Karl Schellscheidt: I mean, use the space for things that are more worthwhile.

Seamus Malin: That’s right. Now let’s be clear what we’re saying here. It isn’t that you’re saying it’s not important. It’s not that you’re saying you’re embarrassed or that you’re whatever, but other people should explain it for you if necessary. That’s where the school should come to your aid, your high school, your teachers, or whatever. they should be the ones who are saying, “Joe or Jill got this mark in this particular subject in this year, and let me just tell you a bit of the background about it,” and so forth. And then it has much more resonance, more credibility if it’s coming from the school.

It’s always going to sound like an apology or an excuse if the student starts to write it, so it’s much better coming from an authoritative educational source within the system than it is from the poor guy or gal who’s trying to make his or her case to the admissions committee. It’s very difficult to come across without sounding apologetic or excuse making.

Karl Schellscheidt: All right, awesome. Thanks so much, Seamus. So I want to just briefly summarize what I took from that. During your freshman year in high school you should make the adjustment from middle school into high school. Socially it’s going to be different; you might be mixed with a different group of kids. There’s going to be a lot going on in your life.

Now certainly you should concern yourself with your academics. You should continue to work hard but you shouldn’t stress about it. You should try some extracurricular activities: do yearbook, do sports, try to find out what you really like doing and what interests you most. And if you do get a bad grade, don’t stress about it. Just keep working hard. Don’t avoid the course that you got a bad grade in. So if you got a bad grade in science class, clearly you can’t go through and now avoid all the science classes that are left in the rest of your high school career, but you should also be mindful of the classes you may need to take down the road to get into that awesome college.

So if you want to get into a great college and you know that you need to take AB or BC calc senior year, you better start thinking about that freshman year. And to me what that means is you may have to take a summer class just to get that one class ahead to put yourself on track. So enjoy freshman year. Don’t stress. But be mindful of your academics and your grades.

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