I am a tenth grader currently enrolled in a fairly rigorous and competitive private high school. I am thinking of transferring to a local public high school in order to save money. Would this affect my chances of getting into a top university? Would the more competitive environment of a large public school make it harder for me to stand out to admissions officers?
It may indeed be harder to stand out in the crowd when the crowd is large. And this could be especially true if you transfer to a different high school as a junior, when classmates are already holding leadership roles while you'll be the new person. On the other hand, a bigger school should give you the chance to try classes and activities where you may excel that aren't available at your current one or to break away from labels that have dogged you since middle school ("the flirty kid," "the nerdy kid," "the kid who made that embarrassing comment in eighth grade English than no one has forgotten!") So there will be both pros and cons to your move next fall, and if saving money is a priority (as it is for so many families right now), you shouldn't let college concerns hold you back.
Admission officials are accustomed to taking a "mix-and-match" approach to evaluating candidates. They often see applications from students who have gone from one high school to another — or even from one country to another — so grading systems, course sequences, etc. can seem out of sync. But you can help them out by using the "Additional Information" section of your applications to explain why you transferred. If you tell them that you were worried about finances and felt that attending a private school was putting pressure on your parents, they will respect you for making a personal sacrifice for the good of the family. Your Additional Information statement should also list any irregularities on your record that were due to the change of schools. For instance, maybe you were learning Russian at your old school but the new one doesn't offer it, so you couldn't take three or four years of the same language. Often, switching schools can screw up a class rank. Private schools, for instance, may not "weight" their classes. So if your public school computes a rank for you, you might not earn the credit you deserve for taking the hardest classes at your current school, and that's certainly worth noting at application time.
Because you say that the private school you attend now is fairly rigorous, you may find that you'll fit right in academically when you start at the public school. But if you expect to take AP, honors or accelerated classes, you may have to fight to get into them if enrollment is already maxed out. This will differ a lot from one school system to the next, so don't automatically assume that you'll be in the top classes. Be sure to ask about this soon, because it may be a deal-breaker for you if you can't get the classes you want. Then, once you decide to transfer for sure, you should talk to the guidance staff there about your schedule and then find out if any of the teachers assign summer homework. You will want to be certain that you don't get behind before your classes have even begun.
When you arrive at your new school, look for ways to get involved quickly. If some of your teachers seem familiar with many of your classmates because they taught them in previous years, don't hesitate to stay after class to introduce yourself and say where you've come from and why. If you already play a sport, you'll probably want to try out for the team at your new school, although the fact that it's a lot larger may mean that competition to make the team is strong. But there are often sports that welcome everyone. So this might be your chance to check out Ultimate Frisbee or fencing and to make like-minded friends. Join clubs and organizations that seem interesting and, even if the officer slots are already taken, you may get a chance to head up one of the group's initiatives, like a fundraiser or a community volunteer day, which could position you for an elected job as a senior.
Also keep in mind that admission officers are up to their eyeballs in the typical high school undertakings ... Mock Trial and Math League, yearbook and marching band. So even the presidency of one of these rarely makes a student a standout. If your anticipated summer plans are canceled, initiate an extracurricular "activity" that you can do on your own and that can move with you to your new school to help you to set yourself apart at application time: Writing a novel or a how-to book (what do you do better than anyone else?); Researching an intriguing and unusual topic; Making a video on exercising indoors with your dog (yes, this is a thing!). Not only do such unique ventures appeal to admission officials, but also they are very transportable and won't be affected by switching schools.
Bottom Line: Changing high schools can be daunting, but also exciting. College admission officials will be understanding if you cite the ways that being a brand-new junior confused you or limited you, but make sure that you emphasize the positive, too, by pointing out the opportunities for growth and self-knowledge that the experience provided.
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please email us at email@example.com.
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