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Articles / Applying to College / Will Colleges Know How Tough My High School Is?

Will Colleges Know How Tough My High School Is?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | June 20, 2007

Question: I am a high school sophomore enrolled in an extremely competitive high school. We are not allowed to take AP courses until junior year, and the AP classes at our school are EXTREMELY hard compared to those of the other schools.

I am worried that this will be a disadvantage to me. Will college admission committees know how hard my school is? It IS a rather prominent school in this area, but I'm still not sure if colleges will understand how difficult it is. My counselor doesn't seem very well informed about this, though I've tried to ask.


Colleges most definitely DO evaluate you in the context of the high school you attend, and admission officials clearly understand that an A at some schools is nearly impossible to earn, while--at others--you can score an A+ just by handing in all your homework! If your school is "rather prominent," then it's likely that admission committees at the most competitive colleges will be very familiar with its rigor and have probably assessed the credentials of many other applicants who came before you.

In addition, when it comes time for you to apply to college, your college counselor will be asked to evaluate whether your high school course load has been "Most Demanding," "Very Demanding," "Somewhat Demanding," etc., when compared to the courses selected by your classmates. So, if--like many sophomores--you don't have access to AP classes now, it won't be any disadvantage to you whatsoever, as long as you are taking the most challenging load available to YOU. (Note, however, that I encourage students to take the toughest courses that THEY CAN HANDLE, rather than opting for the most rigorous ones offered.)

Also ... does your high school rank its students? If so, colleges will be able to see where you stand in relation to your classmates. So even if you don't get tip-top grades in all your classes, if your performance outshines most of your peers', it will show up in your class rank.

If your school does NOT rank, your counselor should include information about the demands of your curriculum--or of certain courses and teachers--and about your class standing in his or her reference. In other words, you should encourage your counselor to say something like this, "Luigi earned one of the rare B+'s in AP Physics, a very difficult class taught by an outstanding but exacting teacher."

When it's time to start soliciting references from your counselor and teachers, be sure to provide each one with a cover letter asking for the reference and offering "reminders" of your achievements. (Be sure to say "Thanks in advance" in the letter as well.)

In addition, each time your school sends your transcript to a college, a "School Profile" will be included. This profile provides data about your school. Although profiles do vary, the typical info included lists all courses offered, average grades and test scores, demographic details about the community in which the school is located, etc. Many students and parents never see the profile that their school sends out. But you might want to ask for a copy next year and see if you (and your parents) feel that it accurately conveys key information about your school's programs and rigor. If not, you can suggest revisions before your senior year begins.

Admittedly, it can sometimes seem unfair (and it sometimes IS unfair) when a hardworking student at one school gets a "B", while a less conscientious student at another school gets an "A." But most colleges do make an effort to compare apples with oranges as much as possible.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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