Does The Ninth-Grade Year Matter For College Admissions?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

When I was a teenager in a competitive high school that emphasized college acceptance as the end goal of all endeavors, it was commonly accepted that the ninth-grade grades didn’t matter for college acceptance. As long as you yanked up the GPA to straight As by junior year, you’d be OK.

But it looks like those days are over. In Slate’s “Getting In” podcast, which discusses the ins and outs of college admissions, a teenage caller asks if lousy grades in his ninth- and tenth-grade years will ding his chances of getting into a selective college.

The answer: It depends. Parke Muth, an admissions consultant, does reassure the caller by answering, “The best predictor of success is the transcript. And the best predictor on the transcript are the grades closest to when a student is going off to college”—meaning the 11th grade and fall semester of the 12th grade. But Muth notes that the ninth- and tenth-grade years aren’t exactly invisible on the transcript. Iffy freshman and sophomore grades “[aren’t] going to help you stand out.”

So in that sense, yes, those years matter, and a string of Cs or Ds are a liability. But Muth does note that all is not lost. The caller referenced a difficult time in his first two years of high school, and Muth notes that grades aren’t everything—that essays and recommendations carry a lot of weight and how a student accounts for his poor grades (he cites a student who described her struggles with depression and an eating disorder in the college application) can help admissions officers see a stretch of bad grades in the context of a difficult time that the student has now pulled through.

All good information—but what about kids who weren’t depressed or suffering from an eating disorder? The kids who simply didn’t get good grades? I wasn’t an especially stellar high school student, because I wasn’t developmentally ready for the time-management and organization skills that managing a high-pressure workload entails. I eventually developed into a reasonably organized and self-motivated adult, but those skills certainly weren’t in place at age 14.

What especially worries me is that if college scrutiny now begins two years earlier, that means less time for teenagers to explore academically. At what point do kids get to study what’s interesting to them, without worrying about grades? At what point are they allowed to try something difficult, with a challenging teacher, and fail? We can’t test our limits without reaching that limit, failing, and trying again. Scrutiny starting in ninth grade means kids will always be looking for the easy A rather than taking a challenging course for which they might get a B or a C.

The host of the Slate podcast, Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford and author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids For Success, offers the following advice: “The ninth grade in high school is really an opportunity to start to focus on your skills around being a student. […] In your freshman year, I would set out to just gain confidence that you know how high school works, that you’re doing your homework, when you have questions and concerns, you’re going to your teacher. […] You’re really kind of ‘leaning in’ to that high school experience. […] How can I really set myself up for success?”

But our parenting mantra these days, one that I subscribe to, is “failure.” According to Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure, we need to step back and let our kids fail, or they’ll never develop grit, persistence or intrinsic motivation. If kids are concerned about how they appear to admissions committees from ninth grade on, they won’t have the time and space to consider what they want to do and what they want to study.

Frankly, I think colleges should be looking at failure on the transcript as much as success. What about the kid who tried an engineering class that was too hard, got a D and tried again? What about the kid who purposely asked for the English teacher known to be a hard grader and ended up getting a C? Perhaps colleges should be looking at that kind of self-direction, even from ninth grade on. That kind of scrutiny might better serve the admissions committees and the kids.

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