Case Study: Dan, the Good, but Not Perfect Student

We will now turn to consider the profile of a student whose GPA put him “on the table” at top-tier private schools. Now realistically, to get into a school such as Harvard or Stanford, a student must do everything right. Students who get into these schools take the most challenging course loads (5 APs senior and often junior year) and still make straight As.

However, as the profile below will illustrate, students need not be perfect to have a realistic shot at many of the most selective colleges, including some Ivy League schools.

Dan came to us with a strong but far from perfect transcript. This is what Dan’s sophomore-year transcript looked like:

Course Fall Semester Spring Semester
Honors Algebra 2/Trigonometry B+ A
Honors Chemistry B A-
English A A
World History and Government A A
Spanish A A
Orchestra A A

This is the academic record of a student with strengths in the humanities but some difficulties with math and science.

Notice that Dan did not receive straight As; however, he also didn’t get anything lower than a B. In addition, he was able to pull each of his Bs up to an A during the second semester, which is important because, as colleges well know, second semester coursework tends to be more difficult than first semester coursework.

In the summer after his sophomore year, Dan traveled to the East Coast and attended the summer program at Columbia University. He took a course in Constitutional Law and left with an A.

Let’s see how things went Dan’s junior year:

Course Fall Semester Spring Semester
Precalculus A A-
AP Statistics B B+
AP Biology B- B+
Honors English A+ A
U.S. History A- A-
Spanish A- A
Orchestra A A

Notice that Dan dropped from honors to regular math. Normally, this would raise a red flag, especially since math was Dan’s weak point, but he compensated for this by doubling up on math, taking AP Statistics. This demonstrated that Dan was not just taking the easy way out.

Science was also not an area of strength for Dan, but he continued to challenge himself by taking AP Biology. He began that class with a B– but was able to raise his grade to a B+ during that crucial second semester. A private school admissions officer would certainly see and appreciate the effort and character demonstrated by this course selection and performance.

Moreover, Dan’s transcript continued to shine in his areas of strength. He pulled excellent grades across the humanities: in English, U.S. History and Spanish.

In the summer after his junior year, Dan took one course at a local community college—Introduction to Biotechnology—and again earned a solid A. Dan’s decision to spend two summers in a row taking courses in subjects not available at his public high school was revelatory of Dan’s intellectual curiosity.

Obviously, Dan didn’t take these courses to get a head start on schoolwork. And the high grades that Dan earned demonstrated that he took these courses seriously and applied himself, even though these grades wouldn’t factor into his GPA. This was a great testament to Dan’s integrity.

Now let’s look at Dan’s senior-year courses and his Fall semester grades—the last grades that colleges saw when considering Dan’s application for admission:

Course Fall Semester
AP Calculus AB B
Honors Physics A-
AP English A
Economics A
AP Spanish A-
Orchestra A

In his all-important senior year, Dan continued to demonstrate the willingness to face challenges in math and science.

He dropped from an AP science to an honors science but didn’t drop the sciences altogether, instead completing a full four years of science. And although he didn’t take Honors Precalculus his junior year, he chose to take AP Calculus AB his senior year.

His junior year math coursework prevented him from taking AP Calculus BC, but admissions officers would have applauded Dan’s decision to take a fourth year of math.

Dan also finished a full four years in English, social studies and foreign language.

Although he didn’t end up with any AP-level coursework in social studies, he did take at least one AP in every other major subject area (math, science, English and Spanish).

He fully demonstrated to colleges both the willingness to try, and the ability to succeed in difficult courses. Colleges could reasonably expect that Dan would continue to demonstrate the same level of academic initiative and accomplishment in college.

Dan’s transcript painted the picture of an academically curious student: not a perfect student, but one who was willing to work hard and seek out challenges. Dan was a student who got the balance right.

Armed with a good SAT score, great extracurricular activities, well-crafted essays and glowing recommendations, Dan had a shot at several of the top-tier universities, including Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, and Northwestern.

Of course, nobody could guarantee that Dan would get into any one of these schools. And as I have to emphasize, Dan only had a realistic shot at these schools because his good-but-not-perfect transcript was accompanied by uniformly and uncommonly strong performances in all the other areas of his application.

At the end of the day, Dan gained admission to Brown, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, and Tufts University. He was rejected from Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, and U Penn.

Prospective applicants should take home the following moral from this case study. The perfect GPA is not the end-all, be-all of the college admissions process. A 4.0 alone won’t get students in. Of course a GPA that is too low will get a student rejected—but a less than perfect GPA need not foreclose on Ivy hopes.