Are All High School Grades Created Equal in College Admissions?

Elizabeth French

Let's face it — not every student gets the top grade in every academic subject. Everyone knows that colleges consider your GPA for college admissions, but have you ever wondered if certain grades count more than others? And what if your not-so-hot grades are in classes that are unrelated to your intended college major? Do those grades carry less weight to college admissions officers?

The answer is — it depends.

You're Usually Applying to the School -- Not the Major

In most cases, high school coursework related to a future college major does not carry more or less weight in college admissions — it's the cumulative GPA that colleges assess. This is because in the majority of cases, you are not seeking admission to a particular major at a college, but admission to the institution itself where you will likely declare a major your sophomore or junior year.

At institutions that have a liberal arts focus, intended major coursework “won't carry much weight at all," said Jamiere Abney, senior assistant dean of admissions at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

“In our curriculum, students will spend part of their first two years exploring and being introduced to the foundation of the well-rounded education we offer here at Colgate — students aren't applying to a specific school or program and aren't required to declare a major until the end of their sophomore year," explains Abney.

At Some Colleges, Major-Specific Grades Do Carry Weight

However, if you plan to study a very specific university program that looks more closely at high school coursework to gain admission to that particular major, your grades in preparatory high school courses may hold weight in securing admission to that particular major in college. In this case, you are not just attempting to gain admission to the institution itself, but also acceptance to a particular academic program.

“At some institutions where a student is applying into a specific major or concentration, the courses that they've completed that relate to their intended field of study will likely carry more weight than others," Abney said. "For example, this makes sense for a student who plans to be an engineering and/or creative writing major."

If you suspect that your target college might put more weight on the grades from classes related to your major, contact the admissions office and ask what their policy is.