High School is Really Only Three Years Long, and Here’s Why

Right now in my state, applications for admission are open and being accepted at several of the state’s public and private universities. As a matter of fact, they’ve been open since late August. This means that before high school seniors even complete one day of their senior year (or one week, or one month for that matter), they can fill out and complete the college application process for a handful (if not more, because many colleges are opening admission early) before they’ve even gotten their new locker combination memorized.

To properly put this in the glaring and insane perspective that it needs, let’s think about this whole concept for a good long minute, and talk about what it really means. And I don’t think it really means that because students can be accepted early, they’re gaining a comfortable jump on their future plans, and it’s actually ideal to have the next very vital chunk of their lives all decided and figured out before the Homecoming dance.

Teens only have three years in high school.
Little Pig Studio/ Shutterstock

For many reasons, we can go with those arguments, and support our newly minted seniors when they enthusiastically apply to college this prematurely. But for reasons of which I am about to give, I think this whole system of early applications and early decisions has little to do with the best interest of the students, (actually quite the opposite, and I’ll get to that in a minute), but more to do with the competitive nature of college admissions across the country. We tend to forget that in many ways colleges are a bit like retailers, and use the same “early shopping” tactics that stores use. There’s a reason Black Friday now starts on a Thursday.

But back to the students. Because of the availability of early applications, and in most cases, even colleges not considered to be offering an “early” window, are still opening up applications during the fall semester, this means that by all accounts students really only have three years of high school grades to generate the GPA they’ll be sending to college. Three. Years.

Truth be told I’m not a math person at all, and admittedly winced every time I sat with my sons to start calculating their semester GPAs.  With all the bonus points for an honors, AP, or Dual Enrollment class, it was hard to wrap my brain around a GPA that could be over 4.0 because how in the heck is there such a thing as a “super” A? Oh, but there is folks.

If you have a new high schooler and this is fresh news to you, brace yourself because things are about to get bleaker. Insofar as GPA’s can have bonus points to bring them up, they’re also susceptible to the devastating effects of being brought down by one small thing, and that one small thing can be something as simple as one not so great grade in one class in one semester. And that one bad grade in that one class (that was probably an anomaly anyway), has in it the power to do more damage to a GPA than one would ever want to compute. 

What all this means is, we’re mistakenly giving as much credit, weight, and value to the grades a freshman makes in their first semester of high school, as the classes they take in the spring semester of their junior year. So why is this such a big deal? Well, have you spent any amount of time with the average awkward, goofy, and disorganized 14-year-old freshman boy, and then met his matured counterpart as an 18-year-old senior? What about your average nervous, shy, possibly dramatic or scatterbrained 14-year-old girl, and then met her as a poised young woman her senior year?

The massive amount of mentally maturative transformations that high schoolers undergo in the short span of four years is an amazing feat to witness. And yet we quantify their semesters in high schools as all equal, when clearly, the child that is taking a final exam his first semester is nothing like the child taking final exams his last semester. We tell freshman to relax and take their time settling into high school and finding their peer group and what types of activities interest them, but then we take their first semester grades – those grades they earned while still green in the gills of high school, and we give them the same amount of weight as every other semester.

We’re essentially telling freshman it’s ok to take some time to get used to high school, except, oh wait, that first semester grade? It means A LOT, because if you end up with a C, D, or F, mathematically bringing up a GPA that has a blemish like that is nearly impossible, because you’ve really only got 5 more semesters to do it in. Why only 5? Because we’re making kids apply to college September of their senior year, that’s why.

We’re just beginning to see colleges make some serious adjustment to their admissions applications and processes – with some even nixing college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT, as they seek out alternative ways to gauge a student’s past and future success not based solely on scores and GPA’s. I hope these types of admissions adjustments and entrance standards change in a away that is more reflective of not only the way it measures the  whole student, but the how and when it measures the whole student.

We can no longer assume (or weigh) a bad grade earned as a freshman means that child isn’t bright or lacks potential. That child is still a child, a freshman wading the waters of a brand new environment, who will be something completely different three years from now.

If high school educators and counselors were able to draw up a new kind of GPA computation formula that better amplifies the changes students go through during their high school years, what a difference it could make for both late maturing students, and those with a few early grade blemishes that have the potential to be the only transcript tarnishes they have.

As far as early applying and admissions are concerned, how about we let the seniors actually get a semester under their belts before asking them to join the rat race of early admissions?  And what about giving them the opportunity for a chance to buckle down and use those last two semesters to turn things around if need be, and get that GPA up before applications and scholarships are actually due?

Having options for students who unfortunately experience a GPA blip early on, to be able to redeem themselves late in high school shouldn’t be looked down upon, rather it should show gumption and perseverance. And all students deserve those last two semesters to continue to boost up their GPAs if they need to, and not let it be seen as a last-ditch effort or detriment to their applications.

Related: Students are Exhausted and Over-scheduled and We are to Blame

When Did High School Activities Become All of Nothing?

About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

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