Grades Don't Define You, So Why Do Colleges Care So Much?

The American dream is horrendously expensive, and stressful enough to prematurely age even the most optimistic applicant. But there's hope.
Kurt Waterstradt on Nov 01, 2022
Grades Don't Define You, So Why Do Colleges Care So Much?

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Kurt Waterstradt
College Strategist
Our database offers students a unique opportunity to find a degree from a top-ranking European university while still being able to study in English. We make it easy to find and apply to these programs, and provide all of the support you need along the way.
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Article updated Nov 27, 2022

For the last several decades, the American dream has included a college education. Guidance counselors, administrators, teachers, and everyone else have told millions of soon-to-be high school graduates that their next step is college. 

Do grades really affect your future?

Many of the current generation will be the first to graduate, a hope their parents have put everything they had into. 

"If you want to be successful, you must go to college. To get into college, you need good grades." – Everyone and their mother.

The reality is much different. The American dream, at least in regards to higher education, is unfair, horrendously expensive, and stressful enough to prematurely age even the most optimistic applicant. 

laptop, woman, education

There were nearly 4.9 million college applications in 2002, or about four for every student who ended up enrolling somewhere. By 2017, the total number of college applications had more than doubled to almost 10.2 million, or 6.8 per enrolled student.

With that many annual applicants, every student is tossed into a biased and unforgiving ranking system, pitting every applicant against each other, with zero transparency as to why a few will receive "Congratulations" while the many receive "We regret to inform you." 

The application process for American universities is opaque and expensive. The check marks required to even apply is daunting which is further compounded by the lack of rhyme or reason to whomever gets selected. 

The questions on everyone's mind: Are grades really that important, and when do grades start to matter? And so the obsession begins: How can I get high grades?

Yes, there are requirements for grade point average (GPA), fees, essays, ACT or SAT scores, financial aid, letters of recommendation, and any number of additional steps, which even when fully completed does not guarantee your acceptance. Whether you receive a congratulatory or "better luck next time" letter, the university's registrar will never clearly explain their decision. Now take this vicious cycle and multiply by the number of colleges applied to and it's easy to see how America's system contributes to the current mental health epidemic. 

If you are one of the lucky ones to receive a congratulatory approval, there's still the looming presence of tuition. In America, yearly tuition has continued to rise at a rate only rivaled by rockets heading to space. Far too many young college graduates are stepping into their careers with thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt from their American degrees. Frankly, it doesn't take a financial advisor to stop and wonder where's the true return on investment? 

Europe offers world-class affordable programs, taught in English, at costs that everyone can afford. For every admissions' stressor in America, European institutions have an answer. Beyond getting a top-notch academic education, students gain extremely valuable, personal and professional, life experience while ensuring their financial future is bright, instead of bleak, after graduation. 

Top 5 College Admission Stressors

Stress #1: Good Grades and a High GPA

In America, your student, for better or worse, is defined by their grade point average. An arbitrary number that in no way defines your kid's intelligence. Yet, GPAs in America are the proverbial sorting hat of higher education. American colleges use a number to define your child's "education" level even though it's fueled by bias. 

Do Colleges Look at Middle School Grades?

Your kid's grades from English, history, art, philosophy, and a litany of other courses are at the mercy of the teacher's bias. Teachers are humans so they have inherent biases like everyone else, but their bias has the power to affect your student's future, and it begins with conditioning students earlier, stressing over middle school grades. Even though colleges don't look at middle school grades, students are conditioned to enter high school with the expectations that their high school grades are everything.

Do High School Grades Matter?

This arbitrary metric in the United States is a core component of college admissions. Even worse, it's a flawed ranking system that robs talented, bright, and creative students from even being given a chance to apply to universities. Many colleges soften the official GPA requirement, but are transparent that if you're not the top of your class, don't waste their time. 

But America's GPA system has provided one advantage: jobs. 

Yup, the amount families are paying tutors and test preparation services built entire section of the education industry into a money-making machine. Add another education debt to the raging fire of education expenses. 

Lastly, all this work towards ensuring your student makes the highest grades take an immense amount of time and places a Herculean effort on them and you. Let's not forget these aren't experienced professionals, they're teenagers. Instead of a world of wonder and curiosity, the American system grinds them down, stresses them out, and teaches them that society will define their intelligence or capability by a biased 2-digit number. 

Europe's answer: 

Grades still matter in the European system, but the goal posts don't move. The European higher education system provides a specific mark for admissions, and that's it. 

Europe sets a standard (goal posts) and that's it. There's no subtext or trap doors. No need for you or your student to "read between the lines" or experience the stress of a college registrar phone call where they allude to your kid "meeting the requirements" but not being competitive enough in their high school classes.

Is Getting All A's worth it?

Not in Europe. Your student's GPA is not weighed against other student GPAs. Even if considered mediocre grades by US standards, poor grades, so long as they pass the minimum requirements, aren't a defining component of their acceptance. In the European system, It's like going to an amusement park and passing the cartoonish cutout at the rollercoaster entrance that simply says, "You must be this tall to ride." 

And that's it. 

Stress #2: AP Classes, Even on Senior Year

Originally, Advanced Placement classes were offered to students requiring more of an academic challenge than their current curriculum. A wonderful addition for certain students, but that's not their purpose now. 

Now AP classes are just another data point to define your student. Essentially, American universities look to see if high school students can already complete college-level classes. 

It's absurd! 

Your student was expected to complete their high school education to prepare them for collegiate-level courses. But now, American colleges are expecting your student to complete college-level courses before being accepted to college! Oh, the cruel irony of U.S. higher education. 

This stress just compounds other admission stress regarding GPAs and transcripts. 

There's a mental health epidemic in America and the U.S. education system is pouring fuel onto that raging inferno every year and every generation. 

Parents and students are also footing the bill for test fees, course materials, tutors, and so on. It's not bad enough that generations of 18 to 25-year-olds are suffering lifelong debt for their education, the education industry is now targeting 16 and 17-year-olds too, especially those with bad grades, and your guidance counselor deserves some of the blame for pushing study habits that promote straight a's and a stressful work ethic starting in freshman year.

Europe's answer: 

Beyond the States has a database of college programs taught in English in 29 countries. From that gigantic database of programs, do you know how many require AP classes for admissions? 

Only 16%! And there are 2,738 bachelor degree programs in our database that do not require AP courses.

Those programs don't require your student to guess either! In the program descriptions, they tell you which courses are required and the score your student needs. Instead of wondering if this AP class will help or not, your student knows exactly which classes to attend and exams to pass. There's no need to keep retaking them to achieve the maximum score or spend money studying to raise it a few points. 

European universities are far more transparent than their U.S. counterparts, making them a better option for your future college graduate. 

Good grades, compounded with the stress of SAT scores that top universities demand, leads to mental health issues.

Stress #3: SAT/ACT Scores 

SAT and ACT scores are the biggest scam in the American education system. This is a pure money-making scheme that's been "legitimized" by American institutions since 1926.

American Universities:

"This is another requirement to apply. For your student to apply to our university, we need them to take a standardized and lengthy test to demonstrate their academic competence." 

U.S. parents & students

"Wait, doesn't their GPA and high school transcript demonstrate their academic ability?" 

American Universities: 

"Um, no. Those are just to show they completed their program. This is to show they're ready for our curriculum. Also, we have a required minimum score, but it never hurts to re-take these tests because the higher your score, the better your child's chances of acceptance." 

U.S. parents & students: 

"I still don't get it, but I guess this is how it's done." 

Another arbitrary score, a lot of money spent on test preparation, a hefty testing fee, and the expenses go on. If this wasn't bad enough, based on the schools your student wants to apply for, they may need to take both of them! 

The ridiculous nature of these tests is compounded by the fact that not all universities accept the ACT while others don't accept the SAT! 

In addition to your student worrying about their GPA, taking college-level courses, and passing college-level exams, they need to study for two different lengthy standardized college entrance tests because their academic existence depends on their score. 

Here's the kicker: In a recent study, ACT and SAT scores had little to no correlation to how well students did in college! These all important tests didn't factor in students' long term academic success and yet families spend thousands of dollars helping their student prepare for a test that provides no return on investment. 

Just add another log onto the pyre of American higher education. 

Europe's answer: 

An overwhelming majority of European schools do not require an ACT or SAT score for admission. The few schools that do establish a clear requirement for admission. Again, no subterfuge or reading between the lines. 

If your student chooses a program of study in Europe that requires either the SAT or ACT, they will know the exact score required for admissions. Also, their score will not be weighed against fellow applicants putting them into a ranking system. 

Your student is given a clear goal and once they achieve it, they're done! 

It's that simple and efficient. 

The obsession with higher grades get worse once you start considering extracurriculars, sometimes a requirements for scholarships.

Stress #4: Extracurricular Activities 

In the United States, academic performance simply isn't enough for college admission. How well rounded of a person is your student? Grades matter, they say, but the admissions officer will not only look at your work ethic, but also all the steps you took to become an all-star.

American universities want to see extracurricular activities which could be anything from sports to student government to debate to academic clubs or community work. There is absolutely no guidance or clearly stated requirement. 

Your student should be curious, pursue hobbies and activities they're passionate about, and not be at all concerned with how it looks on a college application! Ever wonder why so many people graduate college and have no clue what they want to do with their life? 

The American education system doesn't embrace diversity. If they did, extracurricular activities wouldn't be required in college admissions. Teenagers aren't given the freedom to explore their curiosities and interests because their too stressed out about GPAs, college entrance exams, and trying to determine their future before they're 20. There's plenty of college admissions chances calculators that add to this stress.

American institutions are institutionalizing our youth. They're trying to force the next generation down the same path as the previous generations through systems like "extracurricular activities." This is exacerbating the gap between the rich and poor. The majority of teenagers need to work, while in school, to support their families, siblings or themselves. They're too busy using their precious little free time trying to survive to worry about extracurricular activities. 

Just another rigged component in the admissions process in American higher education. 

Europe's answer: 

European universities care more about the quality of their students' lives than their American counterparts. 

Beyond the States has reviewed hundreds of programs across Europe and we've discovered a core philosophy in the European system. European universities are more interested in finding the best fit for the student, not themselves. They prioritize the students' needs because the student, not the university, is the real priority. American universities have it backwards. 

This philosophy gives your student the freedom to pursue whatever lights up their soul and pivot to something new if they're so interested, without worrying about how that looks on their college application. 

This is really what every parent ultimately wants for the children and European universities are there to help. 

Stress #5: Tuition & Scholarships

Unless you're wealthy in America, college tuition is the biggest stress of all. The cost of education in America keeps climbing with no end in sight. American students or parents are being burdened with exorbitant debt for a brighter future. 

This doesn't make any sense. College graduates across America are "starting" their lives with six-figure debt that requires decades to pay off, if they are ever able to. 

Parents are mortgaging their own homes and futures in an effort to provide the best opportunities for their children. With the current system, we might as well tell every generation from Millennials on, the retirement age has been retired! If you're pursuing higher education in America, and aren't extremely wealthy, you'll need to work until your final days just so you don't strap your surviving family with debt. 

Did I mention this level of debt is only for a 4-year degree? You might as well tack on another mortgage if graduate school is involved. Many students will end paying a monthly loan payment that's greater than their parents' mortgage which pretty much rules out homeownership for a decade or so. 

America's created a system that requires students to take on massive debt for entry- level jobs within their industry. You always hear older, usually financially well-off, generations tell other generations to save, but those are people out of touch with the financial realities for college graduates now. 

A significant number of graduates move back home because they can't afford their loan payments and cost of living on the salary of their new career. American higher education systems are not only enslaving the next generations with debt, they're hindering young adults' independence, and increasing financial strain on the previous generations who try to retire by 65 years old. 

When balancing the scales of higher education against personal growth and financial health, it's clear the American system has few pros and a mountain of cons. 

Europe's answer: 

There's no easier way to say this:

College is affordable for EVERYONE in Europe! 

Instead of mortgaging your future, there are hundreds of programs where a 4-year degree at a European university costs less than a single year in the United States. 

Your student can attend a top European university, learn in English, and gain valuable life experience living abroad for a fraction of the cost in the United States.

How to Get Into College with a Low GPA

Their access to truly diversified student bodies, world-class professors and curriculums, without incurring large debt or jumping through the ridiculous admission hoops, makes studying in Europe the absolutely best option for higher education!

“There’s nothing wrong with kids working hard or having full lives. But spending time and money on busywork – taking activities and classes not for the sake of learning or developing, but for the sake of playing the high stakes admissions games – isn’t how most people want to operate. And with the option of college in Europe, students and parents no longer have to.” – Jennifer Viemont, Founder at Beyond the States

Have you considered college in Europe? There are over 3400 bachelor's degrees available for international students, and they're taught entirely in English. Here's how to get into you ideal European college with a low GPA:

1 - Stop Stressing Over Grades

College shouldn't be stressful. Okay, getting into college shouldn't be stressful, and therefore, high school shouldn't be stressful either. You or your student's path to higher education shouldn't be paved with landmines and shackled by thousands of dollars in debt. Unfortunately, that's the American way.  In Europe, grades is just a number, so they don't define you by it.

2 - Seek Options Where Grades Don't Define You

We created Beyond the States on the belief that anyone who wants a top-tier education should be able to get it. It's also built on an acclaimed database of college programs in Europe without foreign language requirements. We give you all of the data and insights in one place to make your search for English-taught programs as easy as possible.

3 - Find Your Best Fit Colleges in Europe

The European path to higher education is resoundingly simple and transparent while being affordable to everyone. Their system is truly founded on the principles of unequivocal academic equality for every person. From college to grad school, we make it easy to discover and connect with the best ones for you. Find your best fit European college today.

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