“What are the best courses for a strong transcript?”
“How many AP courses should I take for a strong transcript?”
“Is it better to report GPA on a 5-point scale than a 4-point scale?”
“If I take an AP course, do I have to take the AP exam?”
“Is dual college credit better than high school credit for a strong transcript?”
These questions (and more) are commonly asked by parents to TPS academic advisers and staff. They reveal how much confusion. misinformation, and even mystique exists in transcripts, grades and scores. Hopefully the following summary provides some clarity.
SAT/ACT: The starting point of a strong transcript
GPA standards vary so widely that colleges can’t use them as objective benchmarks. SAT and ACT are assumed to be the most objective starting point for assessing a student’s college readiness.
We provide a pretty good explanation of SAT and ACT Prep in this article, and so we won’t repeat it here.
GPA: Higher is not always better for a strong transcript
GPA scales and standards vary widely across the U.S. and the world. On the mistaken belief that colleges do initial application sorting by GPA numbers, there is considerable discussion about how to present larger GPA’s by using higher GPA scales (e.g., a 5-point versus a 4-point scale). Suffice it to say that colleges are not swayed by inflated GPA’s or scaling gimmicks.
GPA is always reported with the scale included (or the transcript will be immediately devalued), and so is always considered relative to that scale. A 3.5 on a 4-point scale is higher than a 4.2 on a 5-point scale.
GPA is always compared against the courses listed. For instance, suppose Suzy Jones takes math through Calculus plus Western Literature (two courses), AP English Literature and AP U.S. History, and she presents a 3.7/4.0. Suppose Johnny Smith takes math through Algebra 2 plus Mark Twain Books and U.S. History (not AP), and presents a 3.9/4.0. Though Johnny’s 3.9 is numerically higher, Suzy’s transcript will be ranked higher because her coursework was more substantial and her grades were good.
We provide some recommendations for what specific courses make a strong transcript in our Subject Planning Guide.
AP Courses: More is not always better for a strong transcript
Suppose that Suzy Jones takes eight AP courses starting in grade 9 and she earns a 3.3/4.0 GPA. Johnny Smith takes four AP courses starting in grade 11 (plus a strong mix of other courses), and he earns a 3.7/4.0. Johnny’s presentation is stronger, despite having fewer AP courses.
Suppose Suzy Jones takes eight AP courses and only two AP exams, earning scores of 3/5 on each exam. Suppose Johnny Smith takes four AP courses and four AP exams, earning scores of 4/5 or 5/5 on each exam. Johnny’s portfolio is stronger, despite having fewer AP courses. AP courses without AP exams are not nearly as strong, and may even raise questions about why the student did not take the exam.
We provide a pretty good explanation of AP courses and exams in this article, and so we won’t repeat it here.
Taking more hard courses than you can do well is not a transcript booster. Taking easy courses that under-challenge you is not a transcript booster. Colleges want students who push themselves hard without overreaching.
College Dual Credit: Is the college course always the better choice for a strong transcript?
College credit in high school should be considered with cautious wisdom. In some cases it helps, in some it provides no benefit, and in some instances it can hurt a student’s college success. It is worth noting that the college transcript matters more than the high school transcript. A high school transcript is important for getting to college, but is forgotten once college starts. However, the college transcript is an enduring record that has a longer and broader impact. Rushing to early college credits at the risk of a strong final college record is not necessarily wise.
We provide a pretty good explanation of pros, cons, and considerations for college credit in high school in this article, and so we won’t repeat it here.
How do “electives” contribute to a strong transcript?
Well-chosen elective courses (i.e., courses beyond the core set of courses expected of U.S. high school graduates) can turn a strong transcript into a standout transcript. A wider topical range of challenging courses of completed successfully generally indicates a better-prepared student. Or a concentration of electives on similar or related topics might be used to show a student’s dedication to a particular field of study. A student who takes more courses and does well on them has a stronger transcript than a student who has great grades and only the required core courses
Summary recommendations for a strong transcript
The items discussed above are just the “tip of the iceberg” for building your best transcript and representing yourself to colleges. Here is a good article written by an independent source with no purpose to sell you particular materials, courses or colleges.
Building a strong academic transcript is a process of each year choosing the most challenging courses you can do well. If you under-challenge or overreach, your transcript will be weaker than it could be. The combination of challenging courses and scaled grades will be analyzed to weight your transcript relative to thousands of others.
The process of academically sorting applications begins with SAT® or ACT® scores, and includes other standardized test scores (AP®, SAT Subject Tests, etc.), which are considered more objective than GPA’s. It is important to do as well as you can on these tests, and take as many of these tests as you can do well on.
How does TPS help you build your strongest transcript?
- TPS Writing and Math provide the strongest foundation for SAT and ACT prep; for upper level math, science, literature, and social studies; and for SAT Subject Tests.
- AP courses taught by TPS prepare students to earn top scores — 4’s and 5’s — on AP exams.
- TPS offers college dual credit courses with transferable credits where you can decide whether to transcript the credit or not.
- TPS Diploma students are assigned to an academic adviser who helps them every year to choose the best line-up of courses to maximize the transcript and college readiness.
- TPS courses are recognized worldwide for their academic standards that strengthen any transcript.