How Will Admission Officers Know the Limitations of My High School?

Question: I was wondering how college admissions weigh the school you went to, and whether they probably know anything about random public schools. For example, I go to my default public school in my area, and I am taking all the AP classes we offer (except for Art History, I'm a future science major). However, that is only 7 classes total, and I know that compared to prep schools, that is not great.

Also, in each of the classes, I have gotten high A+s (99s, 100s) in each AP/Honors class before honor points were added, making every one of my final grades be above 100% numerically. Would this actually look bad on college admissions because it would make our AP/Honors programs look non-rigorous?

Thanks for answering; these were just a couple inquiries I had as I prepare to apply to colleges this fall.

College admission officers make a serious effort to evaluate each candidate in the context of the high school that he or she attends, although—as with most things in life—some do it better than others. It's definitely not an exact science.

If students from your “random high school" have applied to your target colleges in the past, it's likely that the college officials will search their records to check those candidates' grades, test scores, etc., and to find out whether they were accepted, denied, or waitlisted. Sometimes they will even follow how these applicants fared if they enrolled. And if admission representatives from your target colleges have visited your high school in past years, they will have notes on file about the school, its curriculum, apparent standards, etc.

But if no such records exist, then admission committees will rely on your “School Profile" to gather information about your high school. At least in theory, every high school transcript that is sent to colleges will arrive accompanied by a “School Profile." Although the formats can vary, the School Profile will begin with data like the size and location of the high school. It usually also includes some demographic information (racial, ethnic, and perhaps socioeconomic figures) and it should include curricular information ... e.g., the list of AP and honors classes, the grading scale, the percentage of graduates who attend 4-year and 2-year colleges, etc. A good profile will also offer explanations that go beyond the basics, such as, “We limit the number of AP classes that a student can take each semester to 3" or "Students cannot take AP classes until grade 11" or “Students electing AP U.S. History cannot take AP Calculus concurrently because it is offered in the same time block."

The latter was true at my son's high school, although the School Profile didn't say so. Thus, students who wanted to explain why they couldn't take the top history class and the top math class together had to use the “Additional Information" section of their applications to do so.

You should read through your School Profile now to make sure that it says everything that you think it should. With a big of digging, you can probably find it online. If not, just ask for a copy at the guidance office. Try to examine it through an admissions-officer lens. For instance, does it indicate that your school offers a total of 7 AP classes? Does it provide all other information that the admission folks should know?

And, by the way, it's very common for the tip-top students to get A+'s in AP classes because high schools often weight those grades. Admission committees will not view your A+'s as a sign that your high school lacks rigor. They may, however, use median SAT and ACT scores (also usually found on the school profile) to help them make that determination. But even if the admission committees believe that a high school isn't especially demanding, they don't penalize a student for attending that school, as long as the student is academically successful there, has appropriate test scores (where required), and brings other accomplishments to the table.

Bottom line: Admission officials like to see a wide range of high schools represented in each freshman class. So if your high school is one that they know well, they will understand its limitations and won't hold these against you. And if it's not one that they know well, this could actually be a plus for you because enrolling a student from a school that is new to them will be viewed as a notch on their belt. While applicants at the snazziest prep schools do have certain advantages in the universe, they are often “competing" with dozens of classmates for spots at the same short list of colleges. And so, because admission staff seek diversity, they are not going to fill a big chunk of any class with applicants from the same dorm or dinner table at Deerfield!

So grab that School Profile right away, and if it doesn't say everything that you think it should, use the “Additional Information" section to complete the picture or, better yet, ask your Director of Guidance to amend the Profile so that all of your classmates can benefit from the improved version.