What are quarter grades ... and should I care about them?

Question: What are quarter grades and do they matter to colleges?

Quarter grades are not as important as semester and final grades but can have a significant impact on Early Decision & Early Action outcomes and often on “Rolling Admission” outcomes, too.

Many high schools, especially in the United States, are on the “semester system,” meaning that the school year is divided into two halves called “semesters.” The first semester typically begins in late August or early September and ends around January, and the second semester starts right after the first one ends and continues through May or June.

Usually, each semester is divided into two “quarters,” and students get report cards at the end of each quarter. The grades that are posted midway through the fall semester are the first set of “quarter grades.”  This round of quarter grades often comes out in early November, although this will vary from school to school.

The grades that come out at the end of the semester are more important. These are called “semester grades” although they may also be “final grades” (which are even MORE important) for students who are taking classes that conclude at the end of the semester.

If you are a senior, college admission officials may never see your quarter grades. But they almost always do see your semester grades because most colleges request a “Mid-Year Report” from the high school guidance counselor. However, when a student applies “Early Action” or “Early Decision,” admission officials will commonly contact the high school to ask for quarter grades because the early verdict must be determined before the more important semester grades or final grades are available. Officials from “Rolling Admission” colleges may also seek quarter grades.

So quarter grades in the fall can matter a lot to students are are aiming for Early Action or Early Decision acceptance and possibly for those who apply to “Rolling Admission” colleges as well. The quarter grades in the spring (the ones that come out in the middle of the second semester) are less consequential. If you’re not doing well then but can pull up your grades by the end of the school year, the quarter grades are likely to go unnoticed.

Some high schools, however, operate on a different system and no quarter grades are posted in the fall. If that’s the case at your school, and you’re seeking an EA or ED acceptance, you won’t be penalized.  But, on the other hand, seniors who had a shaky junior year and who won’t get new grades until January might be doing themselves a disservice by applying Early Action or Early Decision rather than waiting for colleges to see a stronger showing at the semester mark. Similarly, Rolling Decision candidates with no quarter grades who had a weak junior year may have a tough choice to make and must ask themselves, “Do I apply in the fall, with no good senior grades to submit, or do I wait until after January when my senior semester grades show improvement but when the freshman class might be nearly full?”

Just to muddy the waters, some high schools operate on the “trimester system,” which generally means that students will get fall grades but they may be posted later than the traditional quarter grades are posted.

Bottom line: The majority of high schools provide grades before a semester ends, which colleges may request, especially for Early Action, Early Decision and perhaps Rolling Admission candidates.  Many high schools also provide “Progress Reports” with projected grades that are sent out in-between official report cards.  But if your school offers none of this, and you want to show colleges that you’ve gotten off to a super start in your senior year, ask your guidance counselor about gathering updates from your teachers and sending them to colleges even if there are no official grades to include.