My daughter's Maryland high school is ranked high but is very well-known for grade inflation. Therefore, her GPA is probably higher than it would be somewhere else, and our school does not do class rankings. Will colleges know that her GPA is "artificially" high or will they weigh her against kids from other schools with the same GPA as hers? Without ranking, it is hard for them to see a true picture of her GPA. My daughter asked her counselor for an "unofficial" ranking and she's in the top 30 percent but no higher than that. She has a 32 ACT and has already been denied at one Virginia school so that's why we're thinking they may know about the grade inflation — on paper, she should have gotten in.
Admission officers, especially at "elite" colleges, go out of their way to view applicants in the context of the high schools they attend and to learn about unfamiliar schools before issuing final verdicts. Sometimes, when the candidate hails from East Podunk High, this "research" can be hit or miss. But it sounds like your daughter's school is as well known to admission officials as the snazzy private academies, and this will be especially true at "nearby" universities, which have undoubtedly received mountains of applications from your Maryland school for eons.
Thus, it is likely that admission officials at the Virginia college that denied her (and at all of your daughter's other target colleges) will weigh her against recent applicants from your high school and against her current classmates, too (even if the college folks won't completely concede the latter), and not as much against applicants from other places. They will look at your daughter's GPA and have an understanding of what it means because they are experienced in evaluating candidates from this high school. They will know that your daughter attends a rigorous school full of bright students with ambitious goals, but they may also believe that the grades there are "artificially" inflated, as you've suggested. In addition, even if your high school does not provide a rank, admission officials may be able to estimate your daughter's approximate ranking (top 25 percent, top 30 percent, etc.) from her course load and grades.
There has been a tremendous amount of competition in college admissions in the past few years, as I'm sure you are aware, so make sure that your daughter's college list includes "Realistic" and "Safe" options that she's excited about as she continues her quest for the best-fit school.
About the Ask the Dean Column
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.