Do grading scales change your admission chances?

Just yesterday I received the following anonymous comment on my recent post:

“Since you take numbers so seriously in the decision process, How do you allow for differences in the way school systems assign numeric values to GPA? For example, is a kid from XXXX who does not test well (SAT) out of luck because their grade point system is tougher than other systems? “

I get this ALL THE TIME so let’s set the record straight about grading systems and their impact. To start with, how do grades differ? A LOT. Think about your own school, wherever you are. Are/were there some teachers that you just knew would give you good grades, pretty much no matter how dim you might be because NO-ONE gets a bad grade from that teacher? If not, I’m sure there was at least ONE teacher who you just knew, no matter how brilliant you were or how hard you worked, was going to give you a weak grade because that teacher gives EVERYONE weak grades. Now multiply that by all the teachers in all the schools, and you get the idea that comparing grades is no simple process.

Do grading scales impact that process? That depends on a) how GPA’s are calculated and b) whether the grading scale actually changes that process. When evaluating students for admission, most colleges look at your GPA on a four point scale. If your school reports it in some other scale (My least favorite is, I kid you not, a seven point scale) then we just translate using mysterious things like “math.” At most places, your grades in class are determined on a 100 point scale, which gives you a letter grade, which then gets translated to that four point scale. So your GPA then depends on how many A’s, B’s, pluses, minuses, etc. you receive and how those correspond to the school district or university’s four point scale.

Brain hurt yet? I hope not because we’re just getting started! If you followed the above, you realized that your GPA would only change if the class grading scale changes the number of A’s or B’s you get. And I hear you saying, “well of course it does!”, but here’s what I’ve learned…there’s very little data to back this up. The only studies I’ve heard of on the topic, and mind you I haven’t seen them myself, didn’t back this up. In fact, I’ve been told by several very reliable and much more math-savvy colleagues that the studies they’ve conducted for school districts found NO CHANGE in the number of A’s, B’, C’s, D’s, and F’s awarded when the class grading scale was changed. Basically, they found that over all the teachers and all the students, the grading scale was basically irrelevant – teachers were giving out about the same letter grades as before. So, the assumption goes, teachers adjust their grading to the grading scale to create similar outcomes.

So it’s at least POSSIBLE, even reasonably possible, that the grading scale in class means very very very little to your GPA – that if they changed the grading scale you’d have still gotten that C for the work you did the night before it was due (and consider yourself lucky, mister!).

A potentially larger issue is grade inflation caused by “weighting” grades in honors, AP, and IB courses. In some cases this seems fairly reasonable – it gives a bit of help to students in tough courses. In other areas it’s just nuts. I read some files from a school system this year where students with not very challenging course loads with 3.7-3.8 GPA’s were likely to have mostly C’s and D’s, and yes that’s on a four point scale. Insanity!!! So how do colleges cope with all this difference?

Most schools review files by high school, meaning the counselor or counselors read all the applications from that school, and they are responsible for understanding that school’s weighting and grading systems. At some institutions they take this so far as to recalculate every single applicant’s high school GPA. At others, they simply read the file in the context of knowing that school. We also use other data points, such as comparing GPA from the school over years with the performance of students from that school, with the standardized test scores of applicants from that school, etc. Believe me, it’s really not that hard to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.

So what does that all mean? Sure, it’s possible that grading or weighting scales MIGHT make SOME difference in the admission process, especially for colleges that focus more on numbers than perhaps they should, but I’ve found fairly few of those at the very competitive institutions. In most cases, we are doing intensive evaluations of your academic record, incorporating grading scales, weighting systems, course load and difficulty, trends in grades, and, when available, how you rank in your class.

If I said that was a numeric decision, then that’s not really accurate. What’s true is that it’s a decision based on the data we have in your application. That’s pretty complete when it comes to your academic performance. What it doesn’t, and can’t, tell us is about who you really are. Even at colleges that interview, we can’t know for sure your motivation, your energy, your dedication. Every study that’s been done on these factors finds they are at least as important, and possibly more important, than your grades or test scores. That’s what I mean when I say the decision isn’t really about YOU, but about what we can know from your application materials, and that as a result it really isn’t a personal process, even when it feels like one.

I realize, of course, that parents, students, and teachers will want to explain why the C level grades on THIS application aren’t really fair and that really the student would have an ‘A’ average at any other school district. I can’t say for sure they’re wrong, but I can tell you that colleges do everything possible to try to know enough to bear such differences in mind when evaluating your applications. As evidence, take a look at the schools with the TOUGHEST grading scales, public or private. Now take a look at their placement rate at the most competitive institutions, and compare that with some districts with obviously softer grading scales. At least for the institutions where I’ve worked and consulted, those “tougher” schools got a heck of a lot more students admitted than those that were “softer.” Even so, some students from tougher schools do get denied and some from softer schools do get admitted. What’s not clear is whether or not this is an indication that colleges and universities are unfair.

This is by no means a simple or easy topic, and I didn’t even touch on the subject of SAT’s. It’s a topic around which tempers often flare and stress runs high, so please feel free to share your thoughts, and I’ll look forward to providing further insight where I can. Be seeing you.


What else to do if you were denied admission (or if you haven’t even applied yet)

In an earlier post I talked about the appeals process, and for many of you it may be worthwhile to see what new information you can send to convince the admissions committee that you’re a student they want.

On the other hand – they turned you down! If they don’t realize just how special you are, it’s time to tell them to take a long walk on a short plank while you focus on other options. Or you may not even have applied anywhere yet. Either way, there are plenty of options still out there.

The most obvious is to go to an open enrollment institution, most of which are still accepting applications. Most of the community colleges and other schools that only require high school graduation will still be accepting applications and admitting students right up until courses start. There’s a good chance this could save you some money, and colleges all over the country are getting smarter about recruiting and accepting transfers from the community college system. Despite the negative reputations that you may hear, I’ve found that most community colleges are great places for a freshman year. They still have clubs, organizations, and many have athletics, honors programs, and incredible facilities.

And bear in mind – no one knows where you got admitted or denied or when you applied unless you tell them. You can “choose” to stay close to home for a year or two – perception is what you make of it.

You should also be aware that quite a few universities that say they have tight deadlines may make exceptions if you have something they really want. Every year in the first week in April, for instance, some student will seek me out that only applied to one or two institutions. Regular readers of my rambling know I recommend not getting overly excited about so few schools, and especially not if they accept only one in ten applicants. Unfortunately, not everyone listens to me as attentively as you should. Many such students will have terrific grades and wonderful scores, but now have no admission letters. Others, even very talented, bright students, might not yet have applied at all, and find themselves in the same boat. If that is your case, you might check out a few schools where your profile would put you at the top of their class. While they aren’t generally accepting applications, I’ve found that many will accept a student who, for that school, has a great profile.

Bad note to send with this application, “I didn’t get in where I WANTED to go, so I’ve decided to LET you include me in your class, for which you should be grateful because I find your school distasteful.”

Good note to send with this application, “I didn’t originally look at your school – foolish me. If only I had realized what a wonderful fit this is for me as the X program is just what I’ve wanted and I believe I could make a wonderful contribution to your student body by doing Y if only you’d let me have the chance to apply late. Please consider me and if by some chance you do and I take the wonderful opportunities that your great school provides and become ridiculously wealthy I will no doubt donate a new admissions building in your name.” That last part is probably a teensy bit over the top, but I think you get the idea.

So, short explanation – it may be time to stop obsessing about that school that DIDN’T want you and start obsessing about some places that do. And when you donate that building, please try to spell my name correctly. Be seeing you.

Funny spoof of rankings

I tend to make fun of a lot of the rankings, and although I know the folks at US News and like most of them, the bottom line is that a huge amount of their ranking is based on a survey of the same people that rank high on the list, and then on how much money the school spends. In other words, you can spend your way to the top…but this website WHICH IS TOTALLY FAKE – made me laugh about how most of us might guess they set the rankings:

Shameless Plug: Mason Basketball headed back to the NCAA!!

Again, I know sports isn’t the best way to pick a college, but after an amazing victory in the Colonial Athletic Association conference championship game, the men’s basketball team is headed back to the NCAA tournament!!

I’ll get back to your regularly scheduled admissions advice as soon as I stop hyperventilating.

Shameless Plug: Mason basketball in finals!!!

Mason will take on William & Mary tomorrow night, Monday, March 10, at 7:00 p.m. in the Men’s Colonial Athletic Association Basketball Championship at the Richmond Coliseum.  The game will be televised on ESPN and broadcast on SportsTalk 980 AM radio.  Cheer Mason on to victory, and watch the Patriots play for a return to the NCAA tournament . Since the Patriots went all the way to Final Four just two years ago,  you can bet EVERYONE will be watching.  OK, maybe not everyone – but you should!

If you’re anywhere in the area, and want to watch one of the youngest most innovative institutions in the country (that’s Mason) go up against the oldest public institution in the U.S. (that’s William and Mary, or so they say), you can probably still score tickets from all the teams that now won’t be in the final…For tickets to tomorrow night’s Men’s CAA Tournament Championship game, visit or call the Richmond TicketMaster at (804)780-4970.

Reminder, as I’ve said before, unless you’re a recruited athlete, sports is a really crazy way to pick what school you’ll attend.  Of course if you are going to pick that way, Mason basketball should make your decision easy…Be seeing you!