Preparing for College

How Do Admission Officials Weigh High School Rigor?

Question: I am the parent of a 10th grader. Since many high schools do not submit class rank, do universities have some type of high school caliber ranking list that instead gives them an idea of whether a student's GPA was earned at a more difficult or easy high school?

In spite of the frequent "apples vs. oranges" comparisons that must be made when evaluating students from diverse backgrounds around the world, most admission officials do a pretty impressive job of viewing each candidate in the context of his or her high school. Admission folks typically don't rank high schools, but they do make every effort to understand the rigor of one program versus the next. Each transcript that arrives in admission offices is accompanied by a "School Profile" that helps admission officials to assess unfamiliar high schools.

While these profiles vary, they usually include some information about community demographics, grading and ranking policies (if any), a list of Advanced Placement and Honors classes (or other "weighted" courses), average standardized test results, the percentage of seniors who attend four-year colleges, and often a history of where they enrolled, etc.

Admission officials (especially at the more selective colleges) also keep records of all information they gather about the high schools in their purview (through their visits, phone contact, past applicants, etc.) which also helps them to adjudicate their candidates in context.

While this isn't an exact science, students (and parents) can rest assured that, for the most part, admission officials do know that at some schools almost no one has an "A" average, while--at others--every kid who passes the metal detector test is on the honor roll. ;-)

If, however, you have particular concerns about this issue when it comes time for your child to apply to college, you might want to talk to the guidance counselor about providing important specific information in his or her letter of recommendation (e.g, "No one has ever fared better than a B+ in Mr. Synkowski's science classes.") You also might want to take a look at your school's profile now (while there's still time to change it) to see whether you feel as if it presents the rigor of this high school sufficiently clearly. Some schools seem to do a better job than others when it comes to helping admission committees understand their academic climate.