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Articles / Applying to College / Rank or Rigor ... Which Do Colleges Prefer?

Rank or Rigor ... Which Do Colleges Prefer?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | July 24, 2016

Question: First of all, thank you for answering many questions by U.S. High school students. I and many others appreciate it dearly. I go to a very tough private high school in Southern California. Everyone here is unbelievably smart, thus there is a lot of competition to be valedictorian compared to an average public school. My question is, is being in the top 25% in your class (Class rank based off GPA) in a tough private school as good as being in the top 10% at a public school? I don't want my class rank to deter me from my dreams of going to Brown (I am in the top 30% in my class). Thanks!

Admission officials at hyper-selective colleges like Brown are well aware that not all high schools are created equal. They realize that at challenging schools like yours, the workload can be very heavy, and A's are not easily earned. So the admission folks typically allot some extra wiggle room to applicants who hail from the most competitive private (and public) schools.

Moreover, the Ivy League colleges usually attract many applicants from these rigorous high schools which means that it can be pretty easy to get at least a ballpark sense of your admission odds at Brown, based on the experiences of your predecessors. Your high school probably uses “Naviance" or some other online tool to track college outcomes. Thus you can check the Naviance data to see how many students with a rank and/or GPA like yours have applied to Brown over the past five or so years and how they fared. Keep in mind, however, that Naviance will NOT tell you if admitted candidates were recruited athletes, underrepresented minority students, and legacies, or if they had any other sort of major “hook" that would spur the admissions committee to overlook a sub-par rank or GPA. So you should also talk with your guidance counselor when school resumes in the fall to ask how your current stats compare to those of former Brown hopefuls who had the same hooks … or lack thereof … that you have.

In addition, because the vast majority of Brown aspirants are strong students with excellent test scores, it takes more than just big “numbers" to get past the outer gates. If you don't have one of the aforementioned hooks, you must ask yourself what else you will contribute to the college you attend. For instance, do you have exceptional talent in music or the arts? Do you come from an uncommon background? Are you the first in your family to attend college? Without anything special in your overall profile, you probably won't get the good news from Brown that you want, especially if your grades put you outside of the first two deciles, even at a demanding private high school. And, sadly, “special" at the exalted Ivy level doesn't just mean “good." Spanish Club treasurers and orchestra section leaders are routinely passed over in favor of student body presidents and musicians who played at Carnegie Hall. And each year the Ivies turn away thousands of applicants who are just as qualified as those who got in. A Harvard admissions dean once conceded that he could set aside all the applications that came from accepted students and then select an equally impressive class from the “reject pile."

So your next step is to ask yourself how you will stand out from the crowd at application time, and then talk to your counselor in September to ask if similar Brown candidates from your school were accepted in the recent past.

Although admission officials will definitely evaluate you in the context of your own school community and won't be comparing you head-to-head with the salutatorian from the public school on the other side of town, it's important to understand that many seniors aiming for the Ivies and their ilk also attend rigorous private schools and yet land in the top tenth of their classes in spite of it. So your job as you continue through the admissions maze is to try to use your applications—and your essays especially—to show admission committees what you will bring to campus, even if it's not a tip-top rank.

Good luck to you and thank you for your kind words about “The Dean."

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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