Can a B+ Student from a Rigorous Private School Compete with Straight-A Applicants from Elsewhere?

Question: My son is in 10th grade at a highly-selective private school. He has exceptional leadership, talent, community service and extracurriculars. However, he will have a B+ average at the end of junior year when he starts applying for college. Additionally, because his current high school curriculum is already rigorous, not many AP classes are offered. He would like to apply to some highly-selective and selective universities. How detrimental will his B average and limited AP courses be to acceptance at these schools?

College admission officials evaluate applicants in the context of their high school environment and course offerings. Because your son attends “a highly-selective private school,” it is highly likely that every college on his list will have maintained records of past applicants from this school, their grades, course selections, extracurricular activities, etc., and will be able to compare your son to those who have been admitted and successful in recent years. Thus, these colleges will not be comparing your son head-to-head with applicants from less rigorous high schools or from any school where an almost all-AP transcript is the norm.

It’s common for students from demanding high schools to have lower GPA’s than those from easier ones and yet still be admitted to the sought-after colleges and universities. But, as noted above, the college folks will be looking at the grades of previous applicants from your son’s school as well as those of classmates who are applying along with him. While admission officials usually insist that students are never “competing” with classmates, “The Dean” (and a ton of other admission insiders) can’t entirely agree. So if your son and, say, three classmates are all aiming for the same uber-selective institutions and these classmates have higher grades (and/or have taken more challenging classes), then it could work against your son. On the other hand, at the most selective colleges, grades (and test scores) only get candidates to the outer Ivy gates. Then admission committees ask, “What’s special?” So it’s certainly possible that your son might end up with good news from colleges where his friends with better grades were denied.

The majority of colleges, however, may admit a number of students from the same high school and with a range of grades. If you haven’t done so already, you should talk with your son’s guidance counselor. Many counselors aren’t thrilled about broaching the college topic when students are still sophomores, but you can certainly ask if B+ candidates are typically admitted to the colleges that your son is already considering. You can ask, too, if your son’s course choices (now and those he plans) are on a trajectory that’s appropriate for his target schools. Your counselor should also be able to show you scattergrams on Naviance (or on whatever college-application tracking program the school uses) that can help you understand which students were — and weren’t — accepted by your son’s top-choice colleges over the past five years, based on each student’s GPA and test scores. (Note, however, that Naviance data can be misleading because it doesn’t indicate which admitted students were legacies, athletic recruits, under-represented minority students, VIP progeny, etc. So if a student with a lower GPA than your son’s was admitted to a college with a daunting acceptance rate, you won’t be able to tell from the Naviance graph if this student applied with one of the “hooks” named above.)

Hopefully, if you are paying a bundle for your child to attend this private school, your dollars are buying experienced college counselors (although this isn’t always the case). While even the best counselors are mystified by some admissions verdicts every year, your son’s counselor should be able to at least point out whether your son is in the ballpark at each college on his list. Therefore, when the time comes for your son to create this list, make sure that he — and you — listen to the counselor so that his choices include a balance of “Reach,” “Realistic” and “Safe” options based on past application history at his school and not in the wider world beyond it.