May 18, 2020
Question:My son just completed his sophomore year of high school, taking 2 honors classes (pre-calc and English), 1 AP class (US History), German 3, Chem 1,and Debate. His cumulative GPA is 3.68, which puts his class rank in the top 25%. Many students with only standard classes have a higher GPA and a higher rank, but obviously a weaker rigor of coursework. He would like to study engineering, and I am concerned that with a GPA below a 3.8, he may not be accepted. Does it look better on an application for engineering to earn a B+/A- in an AP/honors class, or an A/A+ in a standard class? BTW, he does have activities, volunteering, and a varsity sport under his belt already. Thanks for your help!
Admission officials are always more impressed with students who have elected the more rigorous classes, especially when the student is doing as well as B+/A-. (A low C or D would suggest that the student was mismatched, but that's a whole different story.)
Many high schools "weight" grades and class ranks in order to make sure that students who take the easier classes don't gain an advantage over those who choose to challenge themselves, but it sounds as if your son's high school may not be one of those places.
Rest assured that the vast majority of college admission officials scrutinize transcripts (and the "School Profiles" that accompany them) very carefully in order to see how--or if--the grading and ranking systems considers AP, honors, and accelerated classes. These officials will note that your son took the tough options and perhaps didn't get any "extra credit" for them when his GPA and rank were calculated. Moreover, your son's applications will usually ask his guidance counselor to indicate whether your son's course load was "Most Demanding," "Very Demanding, "Demanding," etc. when compared to what was offered at his school. The "Most Demanding" designation always makes admission folks sit up and take notice. ("Very Demanding," while not as powerful, is nothing to sneeze at either.)
Since your son is just a sophomore now, you might want to ask the guidance department for a copy of the "School Profile" that all of his target colleges will receive once he applies. If this Profile doesn't seem to clearly explain the grading system or doesn't indicate which classes are considered advanced, then you still have time to lobby for a revised version.
In addition, without trying to turn up the heat in the pre-college pressure-cooker too high, do mention to your son that engineering programs tend to favor applicants who have scored well on the math portion of the SAT or the ACT. Many also require (or at least recommend) SAT Subject Tests in math, physics, and/or chemistry. (And, even where not required, good scores in those areas should work in his favor.) Although the harder classes may hurt your son's GPA, they could pay off for him at test time by translating into stronger scores.
When it comes time for your son to apply to colleges, if the high school is not weighting his AP grades, you might want to urge his guidance counselor to mention specifically in the letters of recommendation that your son didn't shy away from taking rigorous classes, even though his GPA and rank were bested by those who elected a cushier route to graduation.