Class rank retains a role in college admissions, but one that has diminished as more and more high schools discontinue the practice of ranking seniors. The primary factor in admissions remains your high school grades, especially in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors classes, evaluated in the context of your school’s curriculum and how challenging your school is academically.
Ivy League and other top-tier institutions will use class rank data if it’s available, but they’re aware of its limitations. The only way that class rank could impart a perfectly valid comparison of students is if all high schools were exactly equal academically and all students took the same courses with the same teachers. Since that will never happen, many colleges have developed ways to infer class rank proxy for applicants and to categorize high schools by level of academic rigor. They then use this “rank” as one factor among many in admissions decisions.
In addition to rank as evidence of achievement, colleges seek students with high rankings because class rank is a metric used in ranking colleges by US News& World Reports and other college rankings publications. These college rankings are a common way for students and their families to assess the relative attractiveness of colleges. As a result, there’s a degree of pressure on even the best colleges to admit applicants highly ranked by their high schools.
Among the ways that an institution can rise in college rankings is to rely on the annual information loop, that is, an increase in a college’s rankings this year brought about by a rise in the average class rank of admitted students will produce growth in the number of applications received next year. The more applications received next year, the more selective the college can be, which, given the fact that freshman class sizes usually remain about the same, lowers the percentage of applicants accepted. A low admissions rate and the associated degree of selectivity are major factors in college rankings.
About half of high schools don’t compute the class rank of seniors. They feel, justifiably, that doing so would discourage students from enrolling in the most challenging courses; the very courses that are the most beneficial to a student’s success as a college applicant. High school administrators are concerned that their high achieving students might be punished in admissions for having lower GPAs than peers who took less difficult courses. In addition, administrators in high schools with highly regarded academic programs feel that the rank of a senior in their school shouldn’t be compared to the rank of a senior in a less academically rigorous school. By and large, high school administrators feel that students should select courses without being concerned about the potential impact on class rank.
Some colleges are more persistent than others on the matter of class rank. Some infer a student’s class rank by using available data to determine where a student’s GPA would rank in a particular school. They also categorize high schools by their relative degree of academic rigor. Colleges can’t submit this estimated data to a college ranking publication but they are free to use it as a factor in their own admissions decisions.
If asked, admission officials at elite institutions wouldn’t acknowledge that they might reject a student with a lower class rank. And they don’t need to acknowledge this because some applicants with a lower class rank will be admitted each year. These are fortunate students who have a strong hook; a desirable athletic ability, an in-demand talent or academic skill, legacy status, or students who are members of an under-represented minority sought in pursuit of diversity. If you lack a strong hook, however, and are seeking admission to a top-tier college, your class rank, if submitted with your high school transcript, needs to be among the very highest in your class.
These observations shouldn’t be viewed as critical of either the college rankings publications or college admissions officials. The college rankings publications care about their reputations as reliable, objective sources of comparative information about colleges. In their attempt to compare apples-to-apples, they view college admissions processes as if they were standardized, which, of course, they’re not.
The policies of admissions officials are also rational. They’re motivated to optimize their applicant pool so that each year they have the largest possible number of high-quality applicants from which to choose. It makes sense for college administrators to take steps to improve their college rankings because they value commonly used publications that shed a positive light on their institution.
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