Do Podunk High Students Have a Prayer at Top Colleges?


How much will a school that is not academically rigorous hurt my daughter's chances?

My daughter, a freshman, is near the top of her small class (about 65 or 70 students). Her overall average hovers around 97 or 98; the school's grading scale is 4.0 for anything 90 or above. She is taking the most rigorous classes that are offered and plans to take the few dual credit classes that are offered — but they aren't offered until her junior or senior year.

Overall, the school is not academically rigorous. No student is allowed to take the few AP level or Dual Enrollment classes (English lit, pre-calculus, AP biology, AP US History) until at least her senior year, and sometimes there isn't enough demand for those classes to be scheduled. The school only offers two years of Spanish (no other language is offered), and the guidance counselor actually recommended that our daughter wait until her sophomore year to take her first Spanish class (our daughter didn't — she's doing well as a freshman in her first year of Spanish with a 100 average.)

This is the ONLY school in our county, and moving her or us is NOT an option. Because the school isn't as rigorous as, say, some big city schools, I insist that my daughter “top out" with the highest grades possible. When we plug in her grades and SAT scores of the 75th percentile (she hasn't taken the PSAT or SAT yet, so we're guesstimating that will be her score), really competitive schools look possible. But I'm thinking that is a misnomer: those schools will take one look at her enrollment at Podunk High and put her in the automatic no pile, right? And even if they did accept her, would she be academically prepared for such a selective school?

The most competitive colleges will not discriminate against your daughter because she attends a high school that isn't rigorous and that offers limited advanced classes. They will, however, expect her grades to be at the top of the heap (and it sounds like they are so far) and ditto her test scores. (When you say that you're guessing 75th percentile on her SAT's, do you mean 75th percentile at the target colleges or 75th percentile among all SAT test-takers? I assume it's the former. The latter won't cut it at highly selective schools.)

“Elite" colleges tend to operate on what I've dubbed my “push-pin theory." Imagine a giant world map lining the walls of an admission office. There is a push-pin stuck into the map for every high school represented by an enrolled student. The admission officials want to use as many push-pins as possible, so rather than taking fifty applicants from celebrated academies such as Exeter or Deerfield, they aim to spread the wealth by accepting some students from high schools like your daughter's … the ones that rarely … or never … earn a push-pin. So, in some respects, it's actually “easier" for a student to be accepted from an obscure high school because he or she won't be “competing" with dozens of well qualified classmates. Still, as noted above, students from high schools with minimal rigor will be held to high standards and must be very big fish in their small pond if they expect good news from the most sought-after colleges and universities.

Moreover, admission folks at top colleges are usually skilled at accepting students who are going to do fine once accepted, even when their preparation has been spotty. Granted, freshmen from less challenging high schools may be in awe of their classmates who arrived on campus already exposed to college-level work, but most catch up pretty quickly, although they may feel a bit more behind the eight-ball than they actually are.

Since your daughter is only a 9th-grader and you are worried about how she'll fit in at a challenging, hyper-selective college, you might want to look for summer classes that will expose her to more demanding work than she encounters at Podunk High. She should also strongly consider taking more Spanish over the summer. (Although admission committees will recognize that your daughter's high school didn't offer enough foreign language instruction to meet their requirements, it could still be at least a little tiny negative that your daughter has only two years of Spanish on her record and it would be a plus if she could show that she went out of the way to continue.) While many summer programs (especially the ones hosted on snazzy college campuses) are very pricey, there are others that are more reasonable. Some states, for instance, offer free or low-cost summer opportunities for gifted students, and public colleges will commonly allow high school students to enroll in their summer sessions. So perhaps a summer class—or several—will help to show admission officials that your daughter can hold her own among talented peers, and this will also help your daughter to transition from Podunk to Princeton (or wherever she goes … I just couldn't resist the alliteration 😉 ), when the time comes.