“Do My Senior Grades Matter?”

No matter how often we get this question, we are still perplexed. We think, “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, all while leading the debate team or the STEM club on the side. “When can I finally just breathe?” — that’s what students are usually trying to say when they ask, “Do my senior grades matter?”

Yes, Your 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. Yeah, junior year — “the most important year of high school!” We’ve heard it plenty. So, 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.

This issue is important every year. But it has become even more critical since COVID started because … school was a mess for most of us for at least a whole year, right? Most students spent most of the 2020-21 school year in front of their laptops, learning virtually from a teacher also set up at home in front of a laptop. Hardly ideal. Even those students who were able to go back to school in person eventually found that school —hybrid school, COVID-safe school, whatever — was not quite the same. For some students, this learning environment might have strengthened your transcript.  Maybe fewer distractions helped you focus more. Other students saw their grades torpedo lower than ever before, lacking collaboration and learning resources.

Colleges know that most students had a compromised year or more of high school. But they still need to get a sense of your academic profile, your depth of learning, and your capacity for rigor. They’re going to look at every year of grades — in fact, at every grade — with even more careful eyes this year and for several years to come.

How Colleges Use Your Senior Grades

Now let’s talk logistics. How exactly are they looking at these grades? Colleges will receive your transcript, which will cover your grades from freshman, sophomore, and junior years. Every high school prepares transcripts differently, so they may show your semester grades, your trimester grades, or your final grades for each year. If you’re curious about the details, ask your school counselor or registrar. It will also likely list your senior year courses, but with no grades attached to those because you haven’t earned them yet! 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.

Show colleges and yourself what it looks like when you don’t let up.

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 Fortnite 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.

Jeff Knox contributed to an earlier version of this article.

Originally published October 15, 2018; updated November 4, 2021.