Admission to College: Does my high school matter?

Since I’ve been on the topic of grades, a handful of questions have come in (and I get even more at my speeches) about how colleges evaluate high schools, and how that will help or hurt you in the admission process. 

First, how do we evaluate schools.  Many institutions don’t us high school quality at all.  Of those that do, most rely on the counsellor from that region.  In other words, admissions offices usually assign an admissions officer to an area (city, state, whatever) and have that officer recruit there AND read the applications from students in that area.  Those officers are expected to know the schools in their region, and most rely on the profiles that high schools send out with your transcripts.  For the most part this consists of looking at what percentage of graduates from that school are headed to college, how rigorous the curriculum is, and (if available) what colleges did the graduates get into.  The last practice is the funniest – it’s when a college actually bases their impression of the quality of a school by where students got in, even if that doesn’t include their own school, so basically buying into the whole idea that where you get in has more value than how well the school fits – crazy!  A few institutions get really sophisticated – they track students at their college or university by high school and look at their performance, and then match that against the information above. 

But wait, there’s more…Once a school has some idea of what your school is like, how do they use that information?  Some will advantage students from high schools they perceive to be more competitive, others will advantage those from high schools they perceive to be less competitive (perhaps on the assumption those students had fewer opportunities).  Some will seek high schools where they have more of a track record – others institutions where they have less (perhaps believing they will open a new market for students in that way). 

Here’s the bottom line – odds are you will have no idea how an admissions office looks at your school.  generally we know that some inflate grades, others are really tough on grades, and that ranking makes less sense in really huge and really tiny schools, and we try to take all of that into account.  Also, how we view your school may change in any admissions office from year to year, or even within a year from reader to reader. 

Not only do you have no idea how we’ll see your school, and whether it will be to your advantage or disadvantage, you also likely have very little control of that issue. You are where you are!  My advice – in the lingo of the Sopranos, fo-gettaboutit.  Your school will be viewed however the college or univeristy chooses – worry about what you CAN control – your grades, your courses, and your application. 

Next up, back to things within your control – a bit more about picking classes.  Be seeing you!


11 Responses

  1. SAT scores, GPA, which numbers are most likely to have an impact in admissions? All I ever hear about is numbers.. What eles makes one standout? Seem’s unfair that your future lays in the hands of someone who is looking for numbers, or see’s you as a number……
    what about the person?

  2. One of my favorite questions. I’ll answer with a story. I had a mom in my office after her daughter had appealed her admission decision twice and was still denied. The mom said, “You just don’t know my daughter the way I do.” Right. That would be because she is, and I can’t emphasize this enough, not my daughter. Remember, when an admissions officer is reading thousands of applications and trying to find a way to pick from among really great applicants, he or she doesn’t KNOW you. Even if they’ve met you at your school, at a campus visit, and done an interview, you’re still going to be mostly the information in your file. Out of what we have, those numbers are the best, and fairest, way we have to compare. That doesn’t mean we don’t look at more, like passion, involvement, or leadership, especially those of us with score optional admissions. But at the end of the day, numbers are a huge part of the evaluation, and things that make you “stand out” may work well at one school, and terribly at another. I’ll try to remember to post a bit about the dangers of humor in an upcoming blog. Hang in there – even though they don’t know you, there are LOTS of great schools (of course, the best one is Mason…but I’m notoriously biased).

  3. So colleges do not really look at high schools as much? But if you had the opportunity to attend a very good high school such as Cardozo High School in comparison to some college in surburban washington with low education standards, which would you choose. Wouldn’t it be advantageous to attend a high school that is challenging or would it be too competitive and difficult for you to stand out?

  4. I wouldn’t say “much” …I’d say that students are viewed in the context of their schools, which is the response colleges give to let you know they know about your school. So…which is better, a competitive school that the college knows gives great preparation, or a less highly regarded school where you can stand out?

    Beats me. My take is that it changes not only by university, but by reader, and by application cycle. There’s just no way to know in any given year what part your high school will play in the process. Say your school has done a great job getting students into some school you really want (let’s call it Ivy U), so you apply this year thinking, “they love my school. we rock.” But the school now has a ton of applicants from your high school, so it becomes a little harder to get admitted in that cycle.

    Here the bad news – you’ll never know, before or after you apply, how your high school played in your admissions decision. Here’s the good news – you’ll never know – so stop worrying about it! If you have the chance to pick your school, pick it by what kind of atmosphere you think will be best for you (or your son or daughter) not by what some college may or may not do.

  5. which is better and what do you guys favor more. a student with a 4.0 in a less smart school or a student with a 3.6 in a smart school.

  6. Hmmm – let’s start with the assumtoion that there is such a thing as a “less smart school” (one hopes some kind of foundation will be established – you really feel for those schools that are smart challenged).

    What I’m trying to say is that smart (which really can’t be applied to a school) is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case the opinion, whim, emotional state of the admissions committee. Yes, there are schools where grade inflation runs rampant, and when I see a 4.0 with a slew of C’s and D’s (and yes, I have seen that) I laugh and laugh. There are also schools where a 3.6 in really tough courses is an incredible grade. But whether one looks to how hard it was to do well in the school, how much a student is challenged, or just what kind of GPA average the school wants to report – well you just can’t possibly know. I can’t even tell you for sure with Mason without knowing a specific school, what we’re looking for that cycle, and the specific courses involved.

    Again, on the downside you’re pretty much going to stay in the dark on how we regard you school. On the upside, you really can’t worry about it all that much since you really can’t control or predict it. Right? Of couse I’m right!

  7. Numbers do matter yes, and what college you go to matters some what. But think.

    You will be happy at a myriad of colleges, and one of them is going to let you in, EVEN IF YOU GET C’s.

    Right now everyone needs to calm down and think about being happy more.

  8. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  9. If i apply to a college and i am denied. Does that work against me in the future or the next year if i apply to that same college again?

  10. can I join a good school with a GPA of 3?

    • There are really many parts to your question. The first is how you define a good school, since generally speaking outcomes based on which school you attend (job placement and income) have more to do with connections and how you do at a college/university (and how many connections and what income your family had whatever college/university you attended). With 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. there are plenty of wonderful schools for everyone to attend.
      If you are asking whether a 3.0 is a competitive GPA, that will depend on what your curriculum looked, your trends in grades, your school (at some schools a 3.0 is fairly high, at others among the lowest in the class), etc – all the factors that go into looking at your academic record.

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