The truth about class rank

Some high schools will assign you a numerical class rank to measure your academic achievement relative to that of the rest of your classmates (Example:  you’re ranked 28th out of a class of 214).  But many high schools, convinced that class ranks foster too much unhealthy competition between classmates, have abolished class rankings.  And no matter what a high school does with class rank, I’ve found there will always be a small group of students who feels they were hurt by policy.

But the truth is that whichever choice your high school makes about class rank, it’s not going to hurt your chances of admission to college.  Most colleges find a numerical ranking to be a nice shortcut.  It makes their job a little easier.  But it’s still just one tool they can use.  

Lots of colleges assign readers to particular geographic regions.  That means the person reading your application will also be reading the applications from any other seniors from your school. They won't need a class rank to get a sense of how you stacked up against your classmates. 

Counselors also write “high school profiles” for colleges summarizing the courses available, percentage of students who go on to college, average GPA of graduates, etc.  That helps colleges assess where you rate in relation to other students.  

And if that’s not enough, most private colleges require that applicants ask their counselor to submit a “secondary school report” on which one of the portions asks the counselor to describe the applicant’s level of academic achievement relative to the rest of the class.

So don’t worry whether or not your school chooses to rank students.  You have no control over that choice.  You do have control over the classes you take, the grades you get, and the attitude you bring with you to class every day.  Get those things right, and you'll be appealing to colleges with or without a class rank to measure you.

Teacher appreciation

Do you have any teachers whose classes you particularly enjoyed this semester? What about any teachers who took time to give you extra help when you needed it, or were willing to talk with you after class about the material, or who just seemed especially dedicated to making your learning experience a great one? I’ll bet you did.
Before the school year ends, take a minute to thank those teachers. It doesn’t need to be a big gesture. A quick note or email expressing your appreciation will mean plenty.

What you can learn at college graduations

It's college graduation time, as nearly 1.2 million students are about to leave school and move on to the real world.  If you visited just about any college campus at this time–including ones that aren't famous–and talked with the graduates, you'd find,

1. Most of them are sad to leave their schools (really, who wouldn't be?) because their experiences have been so good.

2.  None of them are lamenting the rejections they received from other colleges four years ago.

3.  All of their parents are proud of their graduates.

And you might also start to wonder what so many high school students and parents are worried about?

Can you graduate from a public university in four years?

Large public universities often get this criticism:

“The kids can’t get the classes they need and end up going to college for five or six years.”

What a bunch of bull.

This is an especially touchy subject for parents, as people who’ve heard this or experienced it with their own kids for some reason seem to want to believe that public universities are somehow denying kids the opportunity to get out in four years.  But here’s a test.

If you dropped your college freshman off at a large state university and said, “Son, if you graduate on time four years from now, we’ll give you a million dollars,” what do you think would happen?

If he’s got any common sense at all, that kid would make sure he graduated in four years. 

He’d visit his academic advisor regularly even though most other students don’t know advisors exist on his large campus.  He’d register for five classes every semester expecting that 1-2 of them won’t be available, but thereby ensuring that he’s still carrying a full caseload.  He might even go to summer school once just to stay on track if he needed to. 

But four years later, that former college freshman would be skipping across the stage to collect his diploma (and his million dollar payday).  

I went to a public university.  We’ve sent hundreds of Collegewise students to public universities.  Yes, public schools (especially our UCs and Cal States in California) have been hard hit by budget cuts.  They’ve got large classes.  They don’t have nearly as much mandated supervision and guidance as smaller private schools offer.  Lots of students do end up going to school for more than four years.  But is it because they absolutely had to?  No.  A lot of them just didn’t want to graduate on time badly enough. 

Here’s a more realistic version of the million dollar test.  Tell your student that you’ll pay for four years of college, no more.  Set the expectation right away that college is a four year journey of learning and fun with a big fat expiration date at the end of four years.  As my college roommate’s dad said to him the day they dropped him off at our dorm room and were saying their goodbyes…

“Son, you’ve got four years.”  And he graduated on time.     

Are qualifications alone enough?

Does the most qualified applicant for the job or the promotion always get hired?

What if the best computer programmer for the new job doesn't get along with his co-workers?  Does the salesman with the best numbers deserve the promotion if the product and customer base are dramatically different from those where she's had success?  Would you hire a new journalism teacher with a degree in English from Yale over a history teacher on your staff who stays late to tutor students and asks for a chance to teach journalism?  There's no easy right answer in each scenario.

Most people accept that in a hiring process, qualifications are the most important consideration, but rarely the only one.  College admissions is very much the same.

Some large state universities have admissions policies that are pure meritocracies where the highest grades and test scores win.  But for many colleges, picking a freshman class is a lot like hiring for an entire new division of a company.  Qualifications always drive the process, but the ultimate decisions are more nuanced.  

It's easier to make peace with the college admissions process if you accept that colleges work a lot like the rest of the world.  The programming whiz, the sales guru and the Yale grad may not always get the job, but they won't spend their lives unemployed, either.  And the seemingly qualified applicant who gets a rejection from Dartmouth will almost certainly have acceptances from other colleges where he can go and fulfill his potential. 

It may not seem fair at times, but college admissions can be good life training, too.

Congratulations, thanks, and a request for seniors on your college decision day

Today is the deadline for seniors to decide where you'll be going to college this fall. Congratulations.  Whether or not you'll be attending your first choice school, you're going to spend the next four years learning, growing, having fun, and doing things like these.  You have a lot to look forward to and you should be proud of what you've just accomplished.  Just to make sure you don't leave out any administrative details today, here's a post from last year you may want to check out.

Remember that you won't get to do a first draft of college.  So really lean into the next four years.  Enjoy them.  Get all the learning and fun out of them that you can.  You deserve it.  

Now, I have a favor to ask.

I write this blog because I think families should be able to enjoy what you've just finished.  If you've read and benefited from it, please help us spread the word.  Tell a younger friend about it.  Or share the posts that you found most helpful.  Or have them subscribe to our RSS, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.  Or just share the knowledge with them yourself.  Whatever you've picked up here that helped you, pass it along to the next crop of college-goers. 

And finally, thank you for reading our little blog.  It's a privilege for me to be able to do this and I hope it helped you enjoy your ride to college a little more.

Good luck, and have a great time in college.

A good lesson from a senior parent

From the parent of a Collegewise senior who's deciding between five different colleges–University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Washington, University of Oregon and Loyola Marymount University.


We visited them all and bought five t-shirts from five different colleges.  We'll all get sweatshirts once she picks her school."

This kid can't possibly have any doubts about whether or not her parents are excited for–and proud of–her.

More on AP vs. IB

When families ask us which program is the better choice, AP (Advanced Placement) vs. IB (International Baccalaureate), I usually give them my answer based on how they impact a student's chances of admission.  Both programs do a good job of showing colleges that a student has the intellect and the work ethic to succeed in college.  But it's important to consider the question of college credit, too.

The AP program was originally introduced to allow students to earn college credit while still in high school.  And as Jay Mathews points out in his column today, that's where there's still a big difference between AP and IB.


Check the Web sites or rule books of most American universities…and you will discover that they offer college credit to students who get good grades on Advanced Placement exams in high school but that they refuse to give the same credit to students who do well on similar International Baccalaureate Standard Level exams. They offer credit to students who get good grades on exams taken after two-year Higher Level IB courses, but those are different. Tests for one-year IB courses don’t get credit; tests for similar one-year AP courses do.  This has produced one of the most nonsensical testing traditions I have encountered in American education, already famous for exam madness. The hardworking students who take a one-year IB course, do well on the exam and want to get the college credit they deserve have to spend another three hours, at one of the busiest times of the school year, taking the AP exam in that subject, which costs $87."

A lot of students take on AP or IB programs with the intention of improving their chances of admission to selective colleges, which both programs do.  But if you're concerned about whether or not you'll eventually get college credit for those choices when you arrive to college, you'll need to research the policies of your chosen colleges.  And at least for now, it's likely that AP will lead to college credit more often than IB will.

Seniors can learn from mixed emotions

It's normal for seniors to have mixed emotions about this time of year.  You're picking your colleges.  You're about to finish high school.  You're looking forward to becoming a college freshman and launching the next four years of your life.  It's an exciting time.

But you might also be sad to think about saying goodbye to your high school friends.  A lot of you may have grown up together.  You traded lunch items in elementary school and played AYSO soccer together.  You survived junior high intact and went on to get your drivers' licenses.  You sung in the school musicals, joined clubs and enjoyed your summer breaks together.  You've been to dances, football games and parties together.  These are the people you spent your high school years with.  And as excited as you may be to leave and start college, it's normal to have mixed emotions and have a hard time imagining what it will be like to say goodbye to the friends who've been such an important part of your high school lives.

So, if you're feeling those mixed emotions when you think about leaving your friends, how do you think your parents feel about you leaving them?

Seniors, be nice to your parents these next few months.  They're going through a lot of mixed emotions, too.