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Articles / Applying to College / Explaining Transition from Rural School to Private School on Applications

May 12, 2011

Explaining Transition from Rural School to Private School on Applications

Question: We live in a small rural community so that my husband may practice medicine in a grossly underserved area. Our children had a strong elementary school experience in the local schools, then it became clear that we needed to do something different. This year we switched the children to a private, college preparatory school an hour away. It is a haul to say the least and they are active in sports, as well, but it is a wonderful school and we are happy there. However, the curriculum is much more rigorous (hooray!) which meant the kids had some catch-up to do which resulted in our high school freshman having lower grades than he normally would (he has an 88 average of all classes at this point in the year). Will colleges take into consideration this situation, or is he already 'washed up' and eliminated from the top tier public universities?

When it comes time for your son to apply to college, he can use the "Additional Information" section of his applications (or a supplementary letter or essay) to explain the transition he made from the rural school to the private one and how it affected his grades. Of course, he should steer clear of an "I got screwed by going to school with the Okies" approach. ;-) Instead, his explanation should emphasize the benefits of his early years, the values he gleaned from watching his dad contribute his talents to an underserved population, and the ongoing pluses of having a foot in two different worlds, despite the onerous commute.


Admission officials--even at the vast majority of giant public universities--take a "holistic" approach to decision-making and will look at a GPA in context. In your son's case, if his grades rise, but his cumulative GPA and class rank (if there is one) are affected by his freshman record, the college folks will definitely note the upward trend.

As your son and your other children progress through high school, it may be helpful to them-- both personally and as college-admissions currency--to continue to indeed keep one foot in each world. For instance, summers (or at least parts of summers) might be spent doing whatever the local kids do rather than heading off to Third World nations to dig latrines with their prep-school pals.

If, by his junior year, your son's grades are still hovering around the same place they are now, then he can certainly feel free to discuss his very different elementary experience in his essays (it would show a side of him that the rest of his application might not), but I wouldn't suggest presenting it as an excuse for his high school performance. And, besides, an 88 average in private school classes is nothing to sneeze at ... especially if you have a doctor in the house. :)

(posted 5/12/2011)

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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