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Class Rank as a Factor in Admission to an Elite College

Class rank remains a consideration in admissions to top-tier colleges and universities, but has diminished in significance compared to GPA. Each year, fewer high schools calculate class rankings for seniors. It is your high school grades, especially in college prep courses, evaluated in the context of what your school has to offer academically, as well as how rigorous and competitive your school is, which are the primary factors in admission decisions.

A survey of college admissions administrators was conducted by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors to determine the relative importance of 16 factors that influence their admissions decisions. A comparison of three of these factors is shown below.

      % Importance

  Considerable Moderate Limited

None

Factor

Grades in College Prep Courses

84.3

 11.9  2.5

 1.5

All Grades (GPA)

51.9 39.2 6.9

4.2

Class Rank

18.8

31.0

31.4

18.8

Although class rank is still a factor, high schools and colleges view it differently. Colleges want class rank as input, yet high schools are increasingly reluctant to provide it. What accounts for this disconnect?

Highly selective colleges strive to admit students who have been ranked near the top of their graduating class because, among other reasons, this is one of the key metrics used in ranking colleges by US News. The US News rankings are a common way for students and their families to assess the relative desirability of colleges. As a result, there is pressure on even the best colleges to earn high rankings. To advance in the rankings, colleges make use of a built-in data feedback loop — an increase in a college’s rankings this year causes growth in the number of applications received next year. The more applications received next year, the more selective the college can be in accepting applicants. Higher selectivity is reflected in a lower percentage of applicants admitted, which will be reflected in the next iteration of the rankings… and so on.

More than one-third of high schools don’t send the class rank of seniors to colleges. They feel, justifiably, that doing so would discourage students from enrolling in their challenging college prep curriculum and AP courses. As indicated in the table above, these courses are the most beneficial to the success of an applicant. In addition, administrators in high schools with highly regarded academic programs feel that the rank of a senior in their school should not be compared to the rank of a senior in a less challenging school. They also feel that the cluster of high ability students in their own school should not be punished in the admissions process for having marginally lower GPAs than some of their fellow high performing classmates.

Colleges are often reluctant to take no for an answer. Some request estimates of the class rank of the student on recommendations. Others back into an estimated class ranking by using data from previous years to determine where a particular GPA would fit. If asked, admission officials at elite colleges are likely to deny that they wouldn’t accept a student below a specific ranking threshold. However, if this data were published, many unsuccessful applicants would find that they were on the wrong side of a rankings cutoff.

It is the few applicants admitted with a rank below the unstated cutoff that enable administrators to deny that there is a cutoff. However, the profiles of students admitted below the cutoff would reveal that each had a hook such as a desirable athletic or academic skill, an in-demand talent, membership in an under-represented minority, legacy status, or the offspring of faculty or administrators.

If prospective applicants had full information on selectivity factors, many would choose not to apply. This would reduce the number of applications the college would receive and, hence, raise the percentage of applicants admitted. This is why colleges rarely take any action that would discourage students from applying.

Regardless of the impact on certain students, colleges seek to raise the number of applicants each year so that they can show that they are becoming increasingly selective. As a result, many students waste time, money, effort, and, yes, even hope when they apply in vain. Those seeking admission to top-tier colleges should be near the top of their class. If not, they should have a strong hook.

My advice on the matter of class rank shouldn’t be perceived as criticism of either US News or college admissions officials. The editors of the US News care about their reputation as a reliable, objective source of information. In their attempt to compare apples-to-apples, they must homogenize admissions processes as if they were standardized, which they’re not.

The policies of admissions officials are also rational. They’re motivated to optimize the applicant pool so that they have the maximum number of excellent students from which to choose. Officials who include class rank in order to improve their own rankings are simply behaving logically. The college administrators and boards that oversee admissions officials value rankings that shed a positive light on the institution. Human beings cannot be fairly evaluated by statistical models, but this phenomenon isn’t unique to the college admissions process.

How can you avoid being one of the worthy applicants passed over by elite colleges and universities? You can cast a wide net in applying to elite colleges and rely on the law of large numbers to work in your favor. Or, you can hire an IvySelect college admissions consultant.

Your IvySelect consultant is an expert who is dedicated to your success. He understands the singular characteristics of the admissions policies of each of the institutions that you aspire to attend. Your consultant will work with you to create a profile of your academic record, scores, goals, extracurriculars, talents, and preferences. He or she assists in building a target list of elite schools that are the most suitable for your criteria and for you as an individual. Your IvySelect college counselor then guides you in presenting your best possible self to each targeted school throughout the entire admissions process, thereby advancing your success in both college and career.