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What Are Official Transcripts? Getting Ready to Apply for College

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When you apply to college, you present your best self to the schools you want to attend. Since colleges are academic institutions, they first look at a history of your academic performance. Of course, they want to see your passions and interests through extracurricular activities.

Personal essays are not only a way to share your values and background but a chance to make a case for yourself if your grades aren’t stellar. Some colleges also look at your scores on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. But your academic record gives a college or university the clearest idea of what kind of student you’ll be at their school.

An official transcript is at the top of the checklist on almost every college application. So, what are official transcripts? What is the difference between an unofficial and an official transcript? Let’s dive in!

What Are Official Transcripts?

Think of an official transcript as the “mother” of all report cards. It rolls all your high school report cards into one document. Your transcript lists all the classes you’ve taken from freshman through senior year of high school, when you took them, the grades you received, and the number of credits you earned for each class. It also provides your cumulative Grade Point Average (GPA), both weighted and unweighted, and class rank (if your school uses rankings).

The purpose of an official transcript is to show colleges your academic performance over time. For example, if you struggle in algebra during the first quarter of your sophomore year but bring your grade up to an A by the final quarter, you demonstrate the discipline needed to succeed in college. If you start out strong your freshman year but your grades decline over time, colleges may find that concerning This is where the personal essay is important - did something happen in your life that affected your grades? Spell it out here.

Official vs. Unofficial Transcripts

What are official transcripts versus unofficial transcripts? The main difference is that your school or CFNC provides it electronically or by mail to the college(s). Most colleges will only accept official transcripts. Your high school can give you an unofficial transcript for your own reference, but you can’t send it out with college applications. You can view your unofficial transcript on CFNC.org after you send your official one out.

Both the official and unofficial transcripts will show the same information, but official transcripts will usually include a seal or stamp (if mailed out) or letterhead (an official heading) from your high school or through CFNC. This is to distinguish them from unofficial transcripts and prove they haven’t been altered.

How Do I Send My Official Transcript To Colleges?

While your school counselor and CFNC sends official transcripts to colleges, it is on you to request that they send them to the colleges of your choice. Here are some key things to keep in mind:

  • Meet with your counselor. Most schools will hold grade-level assemblies for juniors or seniors to introduce the process of requesting transcripts. Still, it’s best to meet one-on-one with your counselor or college advisor if you have any questions.
  • Be prepared. Before you meet, prepare a list of colleges you want to apply to and check out college entrance requirements. Be responsible and take the lead when it comes to your college applications — you should know exactly what goes into them. Got questions? Make a list of those, too.
  • Avoid fees. CFNC partners with the NC Department of Public Instruction so that students at participating public high schools in North Carolina can send free unlimited transcripts to 110 North Carolina colleges! You can also send electronic official transcripts directly through the CFNC Application Hub, as mentioned previously (learn more about that here).
  • Get ahead of application deadlines. For each college on your list, look up the application deadline. Putting in requests for your official transcripts well before this date — between three to four weeks before the application is due is reasonable. It’s wise to include a cushion of time in case there is a delay in the mail, a website error, or some other obstacle. If you request your transcripts too late, they may not be sent in time with the rest of your application.
  • Final Transcripts. Colleges will need your current transcript when applying to their college, but will also need that final transcript after senior year is finished. This final transcript will show them your final grades after senior year. If you initially sent your transcript on CFNC.org, a final official transcript will automatically go to those same colleges after final grades are posted.
  • Remember you’re one of many. College application season is a very busy time for you but also for school counselors. You are one of many students whose official transcripts they send to colleges all over the state, country, and world. Don’t expect your counselor to move mountains and rush to send your transcripts on the night an application is due. Remember that you also have CFNC.org to use to send simple and free official electronic transcripts.

My Transcripts Have Been Sent… Now What?

Most colleges have an application portal for you to check that your transcript has been received; you can also use CFNC’s Application Hub to verify that your transcripts have made it to admissions. It could take a couple of days or a full week for the received transcripts to “show up” online. If they don’t, stay calm and check in with the college admissions office for guidance on next steps.

Your Best Self Is Enough

You don’t have to have perfect grades to apply to college. Many schools will be impressed when they see a pattern of progress and improvement on your official transcript and that you push yourself to be your academic best. You got this!

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