For a novice, viewing a college transcript for the first time may lead to confusion and even frustration. Because a governing body does not exist that dictates the appearance of college transcripts, each institution of higher education is allowed to choose how and what to display on a student's academic record. Despite this, there are many commonalities across transcripts, which are discussed below.

General Appearance

A student's academic record is generally presented much like a spreadsheet, with entries divided by semesters or quarters. The school's name, the student's full name, date of birth, and social security or student ID number are also included at the top of the transcript on the first page. An official school seal and a stamp, stating that the transcript is official or unofficial, is also located somewhere on the student's transcript. Also, the signature of the sending university's registrar can normally be found on the bottom right-hand side of the document. Normally if a college transcript is not signed by the registrar or if a school's seal is not included, then the transcript is considered unofficial. An unofficial transcript usually cannot be used for advisement or registration purposes except under extenuating circumstances.

Grades

Grades are normally located directly next to credit hours (number of credits received per class) and the course title. Letter grades are the norm, but some transcripts use a numeric system instead. This is especially true of foreign transcripts. There may also be letters on the transcripts that you don't associate with grades, such as W, R and I. These normally stand for withdrawal, repeat and incomplete.

Attempted vs. Earned Hours

If a student enrolls in a course but is unable to finish it successfully, the first time she takes it will count as one attempt. If she takes it again, it will count as a second attempt. Every school is different, and many schools do not count repeated courses in the grade point average, but they are listed on the transcript and count as attempted hours. This is why understanding the difference between attempted and earned hours is important. A student will only have earned hours for courses completed successfully.

Grade Point Average (GPA)

Schools normally have several GPAs listed. The main GPA is cumulative, showing an overall GPA per semester or quarter. Then shown at the very end of the transcript is the final cumulative GPA. A transfer GPA may also be included if the student has transferred courses from one institution to another.

Additional Considerations

Frequently, a transcript will have a legend printed on the back or the bottom that explains what each grade means and how many quality points will be assessed per grade (for example, a B is 3 points, an A is 4 points and so on). Also note that due to modern technology, many transcripts are now sent electronically, so the format and information included may vary slightly from original hard copy transcripts.