“Grades don’t matter until tenth grade, right?”

Both my daughters have uttered these words, each with that hopeful lilt in their voices, as if wishing could make it so. But the hard truth is that grades in ninth grade do count — more than most kids or parents expect.

Here’s what you need to know about why ninth grade shouldn’t be seen as a year to coast, and how you can motivate your ninth grader to take the first year of high school seriously and work to achieve a strong freshman year GPA.

  1. Colleges will see your teen’s freshman year grades

    Pretty much every college will see your teen’s grades from the first year of high school as part of their transcript review. Even universities that emphasizes tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade grades when they evaluate applicants for admission will still see ninth grade marks on transcripts.

    That C in Biology? The one your child got when she decided mastering the principles of genetics mattered less than mastering the principles of TBH (the app for teens and college students to share anonymous “to-be-honest” compliments). Well, she was wrong. Three years later, as a senior, when your daughter applies to college as an engineering major, that C will show up as a loud (and not-so-proud) sign of her less-than-stellar commitment to STEM.

    Talking point: The vast majority of colleges care about your freshman year grades. (The one big exception are the public University of California and California State schools, which calculate your GPA starting in tenth grade.) By doing your best now, you’ll keep the doors to your dream colleges open.

  2. It’s the easiest time to boost a GPA

    Freshman grades are included in your teen’s overall grade point average calculations. Because it’s the beginning of high school, your child is starting with a clean slate. One A (or one C for that matter) will have a bigger impact on your teen’s GPA now and sets the stage for the years to come. Of course, as my 13-year-old recently pointed out, many schools like to see an upward trend in grades, such that with each year your child’s grades improve. “That means I can get C’s, then B’s, then A’s and they will be so impressed!” she declared.

    Unfortunately my kid — like every teenager worth their salt — is better at optimistic delusions than risk aversion. So it was my job to gently remind her that classes get a lot harder between freshman and junior year, so freshman year may be the easiest time to nail that high GPA.

    When my older daughter was a freshman, she got this message at just the right moment. She overheard a senior bemoaning her youthful negligence.

    “How I wish I’d taken freshman classes seriously; I could have done so well if I just tried! Now I’m working like a dog, but it’s so much harder now.” Of course, this is a no-brainer. But for my daughter, it was a revelation.

    Talking point: Every year school gets more challenging, so why not take advantage of those easier A’s and B’s while you have the chance?

  3. The miraculously predictive power of freshman year grades

    Ninth grade has long been considered a make-or-break year. Researchers have been studying how freshman year grades are related to students’ later successes and failures. A recent study from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that students’ ninth grade GPAs closely predict how students do later in high school, enrollment in college, and even completion of the first year of college. The higher a ninth grader’s GPA, the more likely the student will attend college. The study showed that the ninth grade GPA was more predictive than more objective measures like standardized tests. For parents, these findings can be eye-opening because they underscore how hard it is for kids who get off track at this age to get back on track.

    Researchers are not yet sure why ninth grade GPAs are so meaningful. Some theorize that ninth graders who don’t get good grades get shut out of advanced classes, or that teachers in later years are influenced by a student’s earlier GPA, or that early struggles make some students lose confidence and stop trying.

    Either way, it’s worth not allowing your child to become another statistic among the millions of new high school students who lose academic steam in ninth grade.

    Talking point: Researchers don’t yet understand why, but for some reason your grades this year pave the path to your future. Keep your grades up and you can confidently know you’re on a path to success.

  4. Learning has hidden rewards

    Writing an analytical paper on the rhyming schemes in Much Ado about Nothing may not feel remotely useful to your teen. But the more kids understand that you never know where learning will lead you, the better. The more your child becomes a voracious learner of anything and everything during high school, the more likely they will discover the benefits of understanding the world, learn to master new skills, and maybe even discover their passion. Besides, kids who love learning intrinsically do better in school and in life.

    Talking point: Grades are not just a gateway for getting into college. They’re signposts from your teacher that you’re learning. Focus on the learning and the GPA will just be a nice side effect of a lifelong love of learning. That’s sure to get an eye roll.

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