No matter how often I get this question, my head still tilts to the side in perplexity when I hear it. I think to myself, “Of course they matter!” Still, it’s not unusual for an aggressively hard-working, disciplined senior to be looking for the light at the end of the tunnel after years of grinding out assignments, never missing soccer practice, and leading the debate team or the STEM club on the side. “When can I breathe?”: that’s what my students are usually trying to say when they ask, “Do my senior grades matter?”
The answer is they matter a lot—but please, just keep breathing! Your senior year grades are as important as (or perhaps even more important than) your junior year grades. Ah, junior year—“the most important year of high school!” Let’s bust that myth while we’re at it. Yes, junior year is important, as are freshman and sophomore years. In fact, whatever year you’re currently in is the most important year of high school. If you keep that policy, then you don’t have to worry about when to ramp things up or hold back.
Now let’s talk logistics. Colleges will receive your transcript, which will cover your semester/trimester/final year grades (each high school transcript is different) for freshman, sophomore, and junior years. It will also likely list your senior year courses, but with no grades attached to those. Moreover, some high schools include additional information such as your GPA, rank, standardized test scores, etc.—that varies from school to school, so you’ll have to get a copy of your transcript to see what exactly appears on it.
So, if your transcript does not include senior year grades, then why do senior year grades matter so much?
Colleges will receive a set of senior year grades, often before they have to make a decision on your application. If you apply by an early deadline, many colleges will request your first “marking period”—meaning the first quarter or trimester—before they notify you of their admission decision. If your transcript is like most transcripts and includes only semester or full-year grades, then that means, in many cases, your first quarter grades from senior year are the only quarter grades a college will ever see. Even if the college does not formally request the first marking period, you will want to be positioned to send them anyway as a sign of good faith and a positive message about your academic momentum not petering out due to early-onset senioritis.
To all colleges, whether you apply by the early or regular deadlines, your high school will submit your first semester or mid-term grades to colleges, even after you’ve been accepted. This gives colleges the assurance that you’ve kept your end of the deal and have continued to engage with rigorous coursework through your senior year. It is not uncommon for a college to contact students for an explanation if they see a drop in grades or in rigor of coursework. In most cases, a letter or phone call explaining your circumstances will assuage a college’s concern (assuming your circumstances don’t involve too much Fortnight or late-night partying). In more extreme cases, colleges can start you on academic probation or even rescind admissions altogether.
So yes, your senior grades matter, both in a practical sense for college admissions and in a more meaningful way for how you may choose to live your life. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Show colleges and yourself what it looks like when you don’t let up.