Explaining Transition from Rural School to Private School on Applications
Question: We live in a small rural community so that my husband may practice medicine in a grossly underserved area. Our children had a strong elementary school experience in the local schools, then it became clear that we needed to do something different. This year we switched the children to a private, college preparatory school an hour away. It is a haul to say the least and they are active in sports, as well, but it is a wonderful school and we are happy there. However, the curriculum is much more rigorous (hooray!) which meant the kids had some catch-up to do which resulted in our high school freshman having lower grades than he normally would (he has an 88 average of all classes at this point in the year). Will colleges take into consideration this situation, or is he already 'washed up' and eliminated from the top tier public universities?
When it comes time for your son to apply to college, he can use the "Additional Information" section of his applications (or a supplementary letter or essay) to explain the transition he made from the rural school to the private one and how it affected his grades. Of course, he should steer clear of an "I got screwed by going to school with the Okies" approach. ;-) Instead, his explanation should emphasize the benefits of his early years, the values he gleaned from watching his dad contribute his talents to an underserved population, and the ongoing pluses of having a foot in two different worlds, despite the onerous commute.
Admission officials--even at the vast majority of giant public universities--take a "holistic" approach to decision-making and will look at a GPA in context. In your son's case, if his grades rise, but his cumulative GPA and class rank (if there is one) are affected by his freshman record, the college folks will definitely note the upward trend.
As your son and your other children progress through high school, it may be helpful to them-- both personally and as college-admissions currency--to continue to indeed keep one foot in each world. For instance, summers (or at least parts of summers) might be spent doing whatever the local kids do rather than heading off to Third World nations to dig latrines with their prep-school pals.
If, by his junior year, your son's grades are still hovering around the same place they are now, then he can certainly feel free to discuss his very different elementary experience in his essays (it would show a side of him that the rest of his application might not), but I wouldn't suggest presenting it as an excuse for his high school performance. And, besides, an 88 average in private school classes is nothing to sneeze at ... especially if you have a doctor in the house. :)