Bradshaw College Consulting

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bradshaw College Consulting

Dear Mr. Bradshaw:

Our son is a freshman at Northwestern University and is home for Christmas break.

We would like to know some important issues we need to discuss to make sure he is on the right track. He hopes to go to a top law school after graduation and is not sure about his grades this semester. If he earns less than top grades, will that hurt his chances for admission?

He says his classes are hard. He is taking English, statistics, economics and psychology this semester. I told him not to worry, as this is only his freshman year and there is plenty of time left to improve his grades before he applies.-- Concerned parent

Freshman year no time to coast

Dear parent --

Prepare for a shock. Your son should not allow his grades to fall off during his freshman year; the damage to his overall grade-point average would be disastrous.

Many college students fall into the trap of thinking they can make up for a poor freshman year during their sophomore, junior and senior years. It doesn't work that way.

Rarely is there enough time to overcome a bad freshman academic performance. The grades he earns will stick out on his transcripts like a sore thumb if they are less than outstanding, and the damage done to the GPA is almost impossible to average out without taking a huge number of classes in summer school and overloading his schedule the next three years.

He might show some improvement over the next three years -- the so-called "improvement trend" touted by well-meaning academic advisers. But the cold fact is, this doesn't pull much weight with potential employers, internship programs or with law, medical and business school committees as they sift through transcripts of undergraduates who aced their freshman years.

It is a buyer's market. I estimate that bad grades in the freshman year can devalue a transcript by as much as 25 percent.

Unfortunately, this subject rarely is talked about in the counselor's office. Colleges in particular tend to load up freshmen with difficult classes, especially if they are prerequisites for upper-level courses.

Many students arrive with their heads filled with the naive notion that being a freshman is a time to experiment with classes and to find out where one's true intellectual and creative self lies. Result: Grades plunge as students grapple with symbolic logic and Advanced Placement French.

What counselors don't tell you is, bad grades as a freshman often require a fifth year to make up for them. Recruiters see it that way, too.

Few freshmen are aware that summer internships start after the freshman or sophomore year. That means a 2.5 freshman grade-point average featuring B's and C's won't balance out with A's earned in cultural studies taken in the sophomore year, after they wise up.

Recruiters see right through this tactic. You can kiss goodbye that internship at Caterpillar or Boeing.

The biggest mistake I see freshmen making is not having a clear strategy. Many do not have the slightest idea of a major; consequently, they take a hodgepodge of classes selected for them by academic advisers more interested in filling places than what is best for the students' GPAs.

Traditionally, the hardest classes in which to earn A's are the so-called "required" courses. These are the courses that must be taken in order to fulfill a graduation requirement -- certain introductory English, math and sciences, many of them required to be taken in sequence, putting more pressure on the student.

This is where an academic adviser's dual loyalty often comes into conflict. He or she needs to fill these classes because they are on the schedule. But many freshmen are not prepared at this early stage in their academic careers to take so many difficult courses.

What students may not realize is that often, these classes can be postponed until their senior years. One of my clients postponed the second semester of his English requirement until the last semester of his senior year, after three years learning how to write term papers in political science. He already had been admitted to Yale Law School by then, having built a robust GPA.

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