Attending a tough high school can certainly affect some of your performance statistics. It's natural to wonder whether these shifts in your numbers are going to affect your chances of college admission. In this article, we cover what colleges are really concerned with when they look at your record, and we explain why you don't need to be worried if your high school is especially hard.
What Is a "Hard" High School?
There are a few reasons a high school might be considered "hard."
Usually, it's because the school is competitive within the student body; there are a lot of students taking the really tough classes and doing well in them.
Grading policy is also a consideration. Hard schools are slow to give out A's, whereas others practically chuck them at any student in sight.
Size can also impact how hard a high school appears to be. At a large and competitive school, it's hard to get a top class rank—you're competing against a lot of other people. At a small and competitive school, it's hard to get a good percentile ranking because a slight difference in rank can translate to a relatively large percentile discrepancy.
A hard high school is one where students who would otherwise get top grades and top ranking have a hard time doing so, either because the grading is so tough or because their peers are so competitive.
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What Colleges Look At
Many students worry that the relatively lackluster grades or ranking they achieve at a hard school may seem unimpressive to colleges. Basically, they're afraid they won't look smart. They think they won't be able to get into their desired college(s) because they didn't a perfect GPA and graduate as valedictorian.
As it turns out, colleges, especially the more selective ones, do their best to view you within the context of your high school environment. When colleges receive your transcript, they also receive a brief "school profile" which summarizes the school in terms of courses offered, the grading scale, average grades and tests scores, and the class size. Admissions officers will see that your school has tough grading policies and that an imperfect GPA doesn't imply a lack of understanding in your courses.
Colleges are looking to see whether you sought out the most rigorous courses available to you and whether you excelled in them.
Also, remember colleges are looking for the whole package. Grades are a huge part of it, but they're also looking at test scores, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, and personal statements.
Colleges won't assign (or dock) you points based on how difficult your high school is—they'll do their best to be fair to students from all backgrounds.
There are plenty of factors to weigh when it comes to college admissions.
Ways to Boost Your Application
You're essentially trying to stand out by means of some skill or accomplishment.
Commitment to extracurricular endeavors is a great place to start. Quality trumps quantity here; it's better to be deeply involved in a few select activities than barely involved in a whole bunch.
Stellar application essays also score major points. Spend serious time on your personal statement, and get help revising and editing it. Make sure it has a balance of the personal and professional—this isn't a scholarly essay for an academic journal, but it's not a diary entry, either.
Awesome letters of recommendation make a great impression. Choose your recommendation writers carefully. It's alright to remind them of your accomplishments—describe the points you'd definitely like them to include.
The Final Word
You don't need to worry about a college looking down on you because of your hard high school. The most selective colleges spend extra time looking at the context of your numbers, and the less selective schools are, well, less selective.
The best you can do is perform your best at the high school you attend. Take the hardest classes you can actually manage, and don't worry overmuch about how the resulting grades will look.
If it so happens that you don't get into the college you'd hoped for, remember there are multiple reasons why things may not have lined up; it's almost certainly not a matter of the hard high school you attended, but just the fallout of an extremely—and often unjustly—selective system.
Are you getting started on the college application process? Pay attention to the important deadlines listed in our article on that topic.
If you're wondering what kind of application you ought to submit, read what our experts have to say about that very issue.
Also check out this inspirational guide to how one student was successfully admitted to Harvard.
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Vero is a firsthand expert at standardized testing and the college application process. Though neither parent had graduated high school, and test prep was out of the question, she scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, taking each test only once. She attended Dartmouth, graduating as salutatorian of 2013. She later worked as a professional tutor. She has a great passion for the arts, especially theater.