Preparing for College

Will adcoms note that my grade drop is due to my transfer to a challenging private school?

Question: I am a sophomore at a very demanding private high school. My 9th grade average in public school was in the 90's, but my GPA has dropped immensely this year. Will the colleges take into consideration that I am a new student in a demanding school? Will my current grades drastically hurt my chances of getting into a good college?

Colleges will definitely consider your transfer to a tougher school when they see your sophomore GPA, and, if you get back on track soon, it shouldn’t have a significant impact on your chances of admission to a “good” college. However, when it comes to a hyper-competitive school (i.e., the Ivy League and a handful of equivalent colleges, such as Stanford, MIT, Amherst, etc.) then it’s possible that your sophomore slump will have some impact at decision time. At that level, you will be up against very stiff competition, including many students who also transitioned to difficult high schools and maintained top grades when they did.

Colleges typically look at your class rank, if available. (And many private schools do not rank, so perhaps yours doesn't.) Since rank is based on achievements during all four years in high school, yours will probably suffer because of your sophomore grades. Similarly, colleges will look at your cumulative GPA, which again covers your entire high school career. The good news, however, is that admission officials are aware of what they call a “rising record.” So if you don’t do too well now but do significantly better as a junior or senior, they will make note of that improvement, and it will help to put your rank and GPA in perspective.

There are a number of other factors that you don’t mention that admission officials will take into account as well. For starters, just how bad is your “immense” drop in GPA? Are you getting mostly B’s, with maybe one C in a really hard class, or are you posting some D’s? Big difference. Also, right or wrong, many college officials have their own opinions about what constitutes a “demanding” high school. If they know your school to be especially rigorous, that will certainly work in your favor. On the other hand, they may not hold the same respect for your school’s rigor as you do, or they may be unfamiliar with it and will need some prompting when it comes to understanding the challenge of your transition. In that case, when the time comes for you to apply, make sure that your guidance counselor mentions that you made a move in 10th grade from a less demanding school to a far harder one and that your sophomore grades were the result of that change. You, too, can write a brief note to attach to your applications that explains your slip in grades.

Another thing that admission officers will consider when they evaluate your application and see those sophomore grades is your socioeconomic background. If you come from a privileged family, they are apt to be less forgiving than if you come from a less privileged oneâ€"especially if your parents did not attend college and you may not have been exposed to an academic environment in your home. You may call this an unfair practice and feel that, even if your mom and dad are Ivy League alumni, it doesn’t make your school switch any less daunting, but you need to recognize that that’s how some admission officials will think.

Your best strategy for now to is work as hard as you can to better your report card, to seek out extra help as needed, and to pursue activities that interest you outside of the classroom. Don’t focus too much on the trouble you had with your first-semester grades, but do prepare to put them in perspective for admission committees when you are a senior.