Rigor of Competitive High Schools considered in Admissions?

Question: I'm a student at one of NYC's competitive "Specialized" High Schools. I just finished my Sophomore year, with only a 3.3 GPA, and have finished and done well in 3 AP courses since starting, receiving credit for them. Will the difficulty of being in this school be factored in when Colleges look at my transcript?

College admission officials do take note whenever a student opts to attend a competitive “magnet" school rather than his or her local public high school, which may be a lot less demanding. And this can be especially true for students who have been admitted to NYC's most selective public high schools.

So you can rest assured that the college admission folks will review your application in the context of your school environment. BUT ... when it comes time to apply to colleges, it's likely that many of your classmates will be aiming at the same places that you are and—like you--will have multiple AP classes on their transcripts, too. The most sought-after colleges and universities typically attract tons of applicants who have near-perfect grades and test scores, and this includes applicants from challenging high schools like yours.

Thus, before finalizing your college list, check with your guidance counselor to see if your goals are sensible, based on the college outcomes of students from your school in the past few years whose grades, test scores, backgrounds, and extracurricular achievements were comparable to your own.

If your school subscribes to “Naviance" (or any similar service that provides a record of recent college results) you can compare your GPA and SAT's or ACT's to those of successful candidates at colleges that interest you. However, Naviance won't tell you if an admitted student with grades or tests below your own was a recruited athlete, an underrepresented minority student, a legacy, a first-generation-to-college candidate, a VIP, etc. who received some sort of preferential treatment. And if you fall into one of those categories yourself, it might give your admission chances a little boost.

Bottom line: Admission committees definitely consider the competition at an applicant's high school and respect the applicants who have challenged themselves at top magnet schools. Yet the most popular colleges commonly attract many straight-A candidates, from even the most rigorous high schools, so make sure your college list includes a balanced mix of “Reach," “Realistic" and “Safe" options.