Our High School Rarely Sends Students to Top Colleges

Question: My child is very highly ranked in her class, has an A+ GPA and good SAT scores. But our high school does not have a history of sending many students to “top colleges.” The school could not provide me with any summary information and does not participate in the Naviance service. Will her high school hurt her in the admissions process?

Although it may sound counterintuitive, your daughter’s high school may actually help her in the admissions process because, whether they will confess to it or not, most colleges operate on what I’ve dubbed “the push-pin theory.”

Here’s the deal: Picture a world map that covers all the walls of an admission office. Each time a student enrolls at this college, the admission staff members stick a push pin in the spot that marks the locale of the student’s high school. The name of the game is to be able to insert a pin for every high school in the universe.

My map, of course, is highly theoretical. If such a thing existed, it would have to be at least the size of a couple football fields to allow enough space to pinpoint every high school. But if your daughter’s school is rarely represented in “top college” applicant pools, you can see how the admission folks might be itching for that pin.

However, keep in mind that, even with this small advantage, the competition at the Ivies and their ilk is immense. Top grades, rank, and test scores only get an applicant to the outer gates. Then admission committees ask, “What is special?” While being from an underrepresented high school may fall under that “special” rubric, it is rarely enough to slide an application into the “In” pile.

While Naviance can be a huge boon, especially for parents, you can see where your daughter’s GPA and test scores fall by using stats from the CollegeView or the College Board Web sites. For CollegeView, start here http://www.collegeview.com/collegesearch/index.jsp and then follow the links until you get to “School Facts” and then to the specific categories you seek (test scores, etc.). For the College Board, start here http://www.collegeboard.org/ , type in the name of the college under “College Search,” follow links to “Applying,” then look for the stats you want about halfway down the page.

Again, keep in mind that at the Ivies and the other most sought-after schools, even grades and tests at the high end of the published ranges won’t automatically translate into those proverbial fat envelopes. There must be additional strengths or “hooks” (legacy or underrepresented minority status, athletic prowess, etc.) as well. But grades and tests at the lower end of the range will probably spell bad news unless your daughter has other unique talents that will keep her in the running.

(posted 9/1/2012)