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Creating Effective Transcripts

Gifted Education and Support

This Tips for Parents article authored by Wes Beach is from a seminar he hosted for Young Scholar families. He discusses the college application process and how to create an effective transcript.

What matters in college readiness, and what needs to be shown on a transcript, is what a person knows and is able to do, and in fact this is what matters to colleges. But college admissions folks are so accustomed to thinking that knowledge and skills are represented by listings of courses taken at brick and mortar places called schools that it’s difficult for them to think any other way. So you have to enumerate your daughter’s or son’s educational experiences on a piece of paper titled “Transcript” in a way that looks somewhat like a conventional transcript so that it will be recognized. This is the form. But substance is what matters. I urge you to look at substance, however unconventionally it came to be, and then take your best shot at depicting this substance on a transcript, recognizing that it is a faint, formalized shadow of the real person whose substance you know.

If a transcript will be submitted to selective four-year colleges and universities, most of the work shown should be in traditional academic areas, although these areas can be broadly construed and need not be pursued in traditional ways. In addition, any productive endeavor can be included; two course titles I’ve used are Travel to Japan and Work Skills. The first title stood by itself without further explanation; the second was accompanied by a narrative description of the skills gained by working in a fast food restaurant. (The person on whose transcript these titles appeared is now a doctor.)

My experience has taught me that personal traits such as confidence, curiosity, capacity for wholehearted engagement, ability to persevere, realistic self-knowledge, and a sense of autonomy may be more foundational for success in college than academic preparation. Involvement in any productive endeavor––experience in a community theatre group, volunteer work at a public library, participation in a science fair––can build these personal strengths. Such involvement can legitimately be shown on a transcript.

These out-of-the-mainstream courses are offered at colleges: Advanced Puppetry in Television (University of Connecticut); Turfgrass Machines and Equipment Management (Pennsylvania State University); Wilderness Exploration & Landscape Studies I: Expeditionary & Technical Skills for River Environments (Prescott College); Retro PE––includes hula hooping and dodgeball (Reed College); Take Control of Your Success (Cabrillo College, the community college in my county). If colleges can award credit for atypical learning experiences, so can you.

Two principles underlie writing a home-grown transcript. First, there is no universallyexpected format for a high school transcript. Design a format that best presents in an easy-tounderstand way the abilities and accomplishments of the person it represents. Do not use a template unless you cannot think of a better way to show the information that needs to be shown. One of many ways in which transcripts can differ is in the way coursework is displayed; it can be listed chronologically or by subject. Use narrative explanations wherever necessary––to describe courses, explain your approach to homeschooling, describe grading methods, etc.

Second, the amount of detail included on a transcript depends on how much outside evaluation can be provided. If most academic work has been done officially at recognized institutions, little detail need be included. If most work has been done independently without institutional credit having been given, a great deal of detail should be included; a simple list of courses, grades, and credits will not do the job. Details can be provided in the form of course descriptions; evaluative letters from teachers, professors, tutors, or other experts in subject fields; reading lists; lists of mentors and tutors, including their qualifications; and any other material that describes or demonstrates your kid’s accomplishments and abilities.

A transcript naturally begins with a student’s name and information such as address, phone number, date of birth, parents’ names, and dates of enrollment. If you’ve established a parent-run school, the school’s name, location, and contact information can be included.

A list of courses, grades, and credits should always be included. An entry in this list can look like this:

  • World History 1A A 0.5

A list of courses, grades, and credits may be all that’s needed if much of the work shown has been done at recognized institutions. If most work has been done without official documentation, include a considerable amount of detail of the kind mentioned above. This detail should follow the simple list of courses, grades, and credits so that a person reading the transcript can quickly understand what the student has studied, and then read details that follow.

In many states high school credit is awarded at the rate of 1 credit per year course. In my view, how much one learns is far more important than time spent; a lot can be learned in a short period of time. It’s difficult or impossible to measure the “quantity” of learning. If you think that your kid has learned as much or more in, say, English as she might have learned in a class at a high school in the same subject, then by all means assign a full year’s credit, or even more if she’s learned more, without regard to time spent.

I also think that level reached should be considered. Again using English as an example, I’ve given credit for writing competence, reading experience, and critical thinking ability with no thought at all to how much time a student had spent or to whether his competence had been gained through a specific set of compartmentalized activities that were labeled “English.”

Standardized test scores should be included on the transcript; they provide an outside source of evaluation. In addition to simply listing scores, you can also give academic course credit for them. Here is one set of guidelines. Should this link not work, search for “UC a-g options.”A course description might look like this:

  • Algebra and Geometry: The mathematics requirement for freshman admission to the University of California is ‘[t]hree years of college-preparatory mathematics that include the topics covered in elementary and advanced algebra and two- and three-dimensional geometry.’ The University considers the entire three-year requirement to be met by a score of 480 or higher on SAT Mathematics Level 2 Subject Exam. Laura’s score was 800.”

Laura’s transcript shows an A+ and 1 credit for each of three courses: Elementary Algebra, Advanced Algebra, and Geometry. These course credits are based entirely on her test scores. She also has credit for five additional, more advanced math courses which she completed in nontraditional ways, mostly by independently studying mathematics textbooks. Laura became a full-time student at MIT at age 15.

If you use a 1-credit-per-year-course scheme, college semester units can be converted to high school credits by multiplying by 0.33, making a 3-unit semester course equivalent to a yearlong high school course. College quarter units can be multiplied by 0.22. This practice should be noted on the transcript.

You can assign an honors designation to courses that you think are at an especially high level, including courses at colleges and universities, and award an extra grade point for them.

You may not want to assign a class rank, but I have seen, on a transcript that led to admission to Brown University, a rank of 1 of 1.

To provide detail, I most often use course descriptions for work that has been done outside of recognized schools; these descriptions appear in a section following the list of courses. Here are two descriptions that have appeared on transcripts I’ve written.

“Accelerated Honors: Biology, with lab (10th grade, 2002-3; Fall and Spring)

“At 13, I attended my first Science-on-Saturdays Symposium at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, an annual series of six weekly lectures which presents such diverse topics as radiocarbon dating; computers as instruments for understanding the atmosphere; optics applications in industry, etc. I came away from that year’s programs so inspired by a professor from Cornell who spoke on the Human Genome Project that I wanted to focus much of my effort in high school science on the study of biology in general and that of genetics in particular.

“I loved this course. Although we also investigated cellular life, evolution, plant structure and function, and ecology, I particularly enjoyed my work in genetic engineering and molecular and cellular proteomics. My favorite labs were ‘Cell Structure in Plants and Animals’ and ‘Osmosis in Elodea Cells.’

“Texts, Resources, References: [A list of 15 books and] The Human Genome Project from the National Institutes of Health (video, projects, reference materials, etc.); as many documentaries on genetics as I could find, including [six titles]; dozens of Web sites related to genetics, biology, and biological research”

“Kentucky Youth Assembly, 1995, 1996, 1997

“A three-day youth-in-government program sponsored by the YMCA. Over 300 bills and amendments have been passed by the Kentucky legislature that were designed and passed through this program. Casandra co-authored a bill, served in the House of Representatives, argued a case in the chambers of the state capital, and served on a committee for writing legislation during her three years of attendance. She learned much about the workings of government, and learned how to thoroughly research case studies.”

The biology course description was written by a former student of mine named Hannah. She spent her teen high school years as a homeschooler within the framework of a private school established by her parents. With the exception of five semester courses taken at a community college, she designed her own studies and pursued them independently. She wrote her own transcript and supplemented it with eight pages of detailed course descriptions. She applied to six selective colleges––Lehigh, Bucknell, Carnegie Mellon, Rice, Whitman, and Washington University in St. Louis––and was accepted by all six of them. Hannah chose to attend Washington and was granted a substantial amount of scholarship money. She earned a degree in accounting, and in August of 2009 began graduate work at the University of Texas; she is working toward a forensic CPA license.

The second course description appeared on Casandra’s transcript. Her high school education consisted partly of courses taken at various schools, including a distance-learning school. The school that provided each semester’s coursework was named on her transcript in a heading for the semester.

In cases where a semester’s or quarter’s coursework was not completed at one school, an entry and notation like Pre-calculus (FH) denotes a course taken at Foothill College, and a key provides the meanings of notations like (FH).

Other learning experiences shown on Casandra’s transcript were travel, employment, volunteer work, and activities such as the Kentucky Youth Assembly. (Casandra is the doctor I’ve mentioned.)

I’ve often attached evaluative letters as integral parts of transcripts, usually with a reference to them in course descriptions: “See attached evaluation.” Such letters should include the student’s name; the letter writer’s name and qualifications; a statement of subject matter covered; materials used––texts, other books, videos, articles, etc.; evaluative comments, preferably including the student’s general attitude, ability, and work habits; and (not necessarily in the letter) a grade and amount of credit.

Transcripts that include a lot of detail can be 15 or 20 pages long.

Your job is to create a unique document that shows in an easily understood, convincing way the abilities and accomplishments of your son or daughter.


Amy R

Thank you for this! it's exactly what I need.

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