The quality of education at different high schools can vary widely, sometimes to the detriment of students. If you go to a school that doesn’t offer the programs and level of instruction that you would like, you might feel frustrated and worried about getting into college.
In this article, I’ll give you some of the characteristics of a “bad” high school and tell you what steps you can take to improve your educational experience and college applications despite these disadvantages.
What Defines a “Bad” High School?
There are a few traits that are common among high schools that don't prepare students adequately for college. Your school might not necessarily be “bad” just because it has one of these characteristics, but if it has all of them, the advice in this article is for you.
The quality of teaching at a high school can make a big difference in how much students learn in their classes and how interested they are in the subjects. If the teachers aren’t engaged, the students definitely won’t be. A hallmark of low-quality teaching is when the teacher structures everything so that he or she has to do as little work as possible. For example, instead of more challenging short answer tests, the teacher might give you all multiple-choice tests because they’re faster to grade. Students know low-quality teaching when they see it - it usually means easier, duller classes that lack substance.
Very Few Advanced Classes
Low-quality high schools often don't offer many advanced classes to students. This ties into issues with teaching as well; advanced classes are more difficult to teach and require expertise that the teachers at the school might not have. A “bad” high school may not offer any AP or IB classes, or it may offer only one or two. A lack of high-level classes can prevent advanced students from challenging themselves in high school and reaching their full potential. It can also be a setback when it comes to applying for college.
Limited Choices for Classes Overall
In general, “bad” high schools don’t give students many choices for classes. These schools may offer fewer classes because they’re underfunded and don’t have the resources for additional teachers and course materials. A lack of choice can mean that students are unable to explore their areas of interest in a way that would be possible at another high school. They might be forced onto a certain course track that doesn’t fit their needs or miss out on a subject that they would love. In extreme cases, students could even end up unprepared for college because their high school didn't offer the prerequisites they needed to succeed in introductory college classes.
It would be cool to take the AP Environmental Science class in high school if you're passionate about nature conservation, but your school might not give you that option or offer other classes you're interested in.
What Are Your Options If Your School Is Bad?
If your high school offers poor quality instruction, you may have to go above and beyond to get the kind of education you need to be prepared for college. But don't despair: you do have options.
Option 1: Talk to a Teacher or Academic Advisor
If you go to a bad high school, you will probably benefit from extra help beyond the instruction you’re getting in your classes. You can discuss your options with a teacher or guidance counselor to see what you can do to improve your chances of being accepted to a good college. They might have advice based on what other high-achieving students have done in the past to make up for the lack of opportunities.
Solutions might include devising your own independent study class or doing extra projects in your existing classes to demonstrate your academic abilities. This is the least disruptive option you have, and it should be the first step you take before you decide to pursue more drastic measures like taking classes elsewhere or transferring schools.
Option 2: Take Classes at a Nearby Community College
Many high schools will allow you to do “dual enrollment.” This means that you’re simultaneously enrolled in classes at your high school and a nearby college. If the advanced classes you’re looking for are not offered at your high school, this can be a great way to gain access to the learning experiences you want.
Keep in mind; however, that there are some drawbacks to taking community college classes in high school. You may have to pay for them on your own if your high school doesn't offer financial assistance, and you'll need to find reliable transportation to and from campus. Balancing classes at two different schools can be tough, especially if you're heavily involved in extracurricular activities. Speak to a guidance counselor to find out more about how your high school handles dual enrollment and what your options are.
Option 3: Transfer to a Different High School in the Area
The final option you have is transferring high schools. This is a more realistic option if you're a freshman or sophomore, although technically you can transfer in any year of high school. It's best to transfer as an underclassman because you'll have more time to take advantage of better resources at the new school and adjust to a different environment.
It can be tough socially and academically to transfer, so this should be a last resort if you feel like your school isn’t cutting it. Transferring high schools will require some planning on your part, but it’s usually not too difficult to apply for a transfer. You can apply at the beginning of each school year (in September or October) for a transfer that will take place the following year. Again, check with your guidance counselor to see what your school’s policies are for transferring.
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Will Your School’s Quality Impact Your Chances of Getting Into College?
If you go to a high school that could be considered “bad,” you might be worried about the effect this will have on the college application process. Admissions offices collect a lot of data about high schools around the country that they use to inform their decisions. If your high school only offered two AP classes and you took both of them, you wouldn’t be compared directly to a student at another high school who took five AP classes out of the 15 that were offered.
Colleges understand that every high school is different and that some provide better opportunities than others. They do their best not to fault students for attending high schools with fewer opportunities by considering whether a student made the most of the situation at hand. Colleges will be mainly concerned with two things if you go to a bad high school:
Did you challenge yourself as much as possible within the constraints of the curriculum at the school while earning high grades?
- Did you seek out additional opportunities outside of your high school to enrich your learning experience?
If you do both of those things, you will still stand a strong chance against high-achieving students who were fortunate enough to attend better high schools.
What Are Some Other Ways to Strengthen Your Application If You Go to a Bad High School?
If you’re still worried about how you’ll fare in the application process, there are a couple of measures you can take to make sure you’re presenting yourself to colleges in the best way possible:
Build Up Strong Extracurricular and Leadership Credentials
Even if your school doesn’t have the best academics, you still might be able to participate in extracurricular activities that will bolster your application. If you have an interest that you feel isn’t represented by the current extracurricular offerings at your school, you can even create a new club. This signals to colleges that you’re willing to take initiative and are passionate about something. You can also get involved in extracurricular activities that are not connected to your school, whether that includes a church group, volunteer organization, community theater company, or a different organization.
If you’re into sports, you can try to become a team captain so that you’re in a leadership role. Leadership is important to colleges because it shows that you are capable of being in a position of authority with extra responsibilities. This indicates independence, maturity, and the potential to make big changes in the world. The point of extracurricular activities is to show that you have interests outside of academics and will bring something unique to a college campus. You should use your extracurriculars to showcase who you are and demonstrate your potential.
Get Great Letters of Recommendation
Another way to build up your application is to stay on top of your letters of recommendation. Make sure you ask your teachers with plenty of time to spare (ideally let them know during the spring of your junior year and then confirm with them early in your senior year). Be strategic about which teachers you ask for letters. It's best to ask teachers who can testify to your strengths as a student and your ability to go above and beyond in your coursework. If you consulted a teacher on how to improve your academic record for college applications, you might ask that teacher for a recommendation so that he or she can provide anecdotes that point to your determination.
Write an Awesome Personal Statement
The personal statement is an opportunity for you to tell colleges something about yourself that they might not learn from the rest of your application. It’s another place where you can show what makes you special as an applicant apart from your academic credentials. A great personal statement can make you stand out in the application process as someone who has a strong voice and will contribute something valuable to the college community. See our guide for how to write a great college essay.
Seek Out Academic Awards
Outside of the academic boundaries of your high school, there are other awards that you can win to bolster your application. If you take the PSAT and manage to get a very high score, you may qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. You can also check out this list of the best scholarships for high school seniors (many of them are available to lower high school grades as well). A scholarship can be an impressive addition to your credentials.
Do some exploring and see if there are any particular scholarships or awards that appeal strongly to you and your interests. For example, if you’re a particularly strong math student, you might consider trying to qualify for the International Math Olympiad. If you take some of these steps to improve your application, colleges will be impressed with your drive and will be more likely to accept you.
I won first place in a golden cup forging contest!
“Bad” high schools are typically characterized by poor teaching, a lack of advanced classes, and fewer class options overall. If you go to a “bad” high school, you should discuss your concerns with your guidance counselor or an academic advisor. You might decide to take classes at a nearby community college or even transfer to a different high school in the area that has better academics.
Colleges will know the limitations of your high school when reviewing your application, so you shouldn’t worry too much about being penalized as long as you’ve challenged yourself as much as possible within the constraints of your environment.
To improve your application further, you can focus on extracurricular and leadership activities, a great personal statement, and outside scholarships and awards. The quality of your high school shouldn’t dictate where you go to college as long as you continue to pursue your interests and be proactive about challenging yourself academically.
Are you planning on applying to competitive colleges? Find out what a rigorous high school course load looks like so you can impress them with your application!
You should also read this article to get more information on honors societies and classes and how they can affect your potential in the college application process.
For a quick overview of the steps you'll need to take in high school to apply to college, take a look at this infographic.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.