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Articles / Admissions / Is Second Decile Rank a Deal-Breaker?

May 4, 2020

Is Second Decile Rank a Deal-Breaker?

Question: I am a high school senior who is looking to apply to some top colleges. I got to a very competitive school (ranked in the top 20 schools in the nation by US News). My school is extremely rigorous and as a result I am not in the top 10% but the top 20%. Will my class rank keep me out of top schools like Stanford, Harvard, Duke etc. I don’t want my application to be thrown out just because I’m in the top 20% instead of top ten. I have seen the stats of these schools and it seems like the only students who get in who aren’t in the top ten percent are athletes.

When college admission committees evaluate their candidates, they don’t just focus on the “numbers” (GPA, rank, test scores) but also on the factors that contribute to these numbers. So, when a high school is especially rigorous and/or competitive, admission officials realize that a student in the second decile may, in fact, be stronger than a student in the first decile elsewhere.  The admission officials also note if the student has a “rising record” (i.e., grades improved after freshman or sophomore year) or if there were extenuating circumstances that might have affected the grades and thus the class rank (e.g., the student took an exceptionally demanding course load or missed school due to a serious illness or family crisis).

Thus, admission committees don’t look at a rank in isolation, and they realize that at some cut-throat high schools, a single B+ can send a student from the top tenth down to the second one.  But, nonetheless, colleges do like to boast that they have high percentages of students who were in the top tenth of their graduating classes. So it’s definitely an advantage to land there, yet it’s not an automatic deal-breaker for those who don’t.


As you probably know, it takes not just great grades and test scores but also some additional pizzazz (unique extracurriculars, exceptional achievements, atypical background, etc.) to get good news from hyper-selective places like Harvard, Stanford, and Duke. So if your overall profile is exceptional and your course selection and grades are strong (despite your second-tenth rank), you should be at least in the running at your target colleges. But if there’s nothing in your application folder than sets you apart from the crowd, then even a top-decile ranking probably won’t get you good news from the most sought-after universities.

Note also that high schools like yours typically send lots of candidates to the colleges you’ve named. So if many of your classmates are applying to Harvard, Stanford, and Duke, those who are ranked above you will have an edge because they, too, attend a competitive high school and yet have managed to land in the first decile. But, even so, your extracurricular passions and accomplishments might still make you a contender, if these outshine those on your classmates’ applications.  Although the college folks will tell you that you’re not competing with your classmates,  the truth is that the choosiest colleges rarely accept more than a small handful of students from the same high school, so applications to your target universities from first-decile classmates may indeed hurt your odds.

Bottom line: A second-tenth rank won’t bar you from your dream schools for sure, but, since you’re not a recruited athlete, you will need to stand out in some other way to be a serious contender.

Written by

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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