Class Rank and College Admission

Your students probably know that grades and test scores are the most important factors in college admission, with essays, recommendations, and other elements—such as class rank—also given weight. Do your students understand what class rank is and how colleges view this piece of data?

How Class Rank Is Determined

Class ranking is a mathematical summary of a student's academic record compared to those of other students in the class. It usually considers both the degree of difficulty of the courses a student is taking (AP, honors, college-preparatory, or regular courses) and the grade the student earns. The compilation of courses and grades is converted to an overall grade point average (GPA), and the higher the GPA, the higher the student's class ranking.

Why High Schools Are Forgoing Class Ranking

Class rank was once a major component in admission decisions. But according to a recent report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), more than half of all high schools no longer report student rankings.

Most small private and competitive high schools have done away with it because they feel it penalizes many excellent students who are squeezed out of the top 10% of the class and then overlooked by elite colleges. Although most public high schools still rank students, some now make it optional for students to report their rankings to colleges.

Class Rank and Colleges

Due to the differences in curricula and grading standards at different high schools, many admission officers (especially at selective private colleges) have begun to discount the accuracy and importance of class rank as a factor in evaluating students. Some colleges that used to rely on class rank now use SAT scores and GPA.

Most large state universities, however, still require applicants to report class rank (as do many scholarship programs) and rely on it to help sort through the high volume of applications received.

Factors in Admission Decisions

When considering the importance of class rank, it is helpful to look at some of the differences in the ways public and private colleges evaluate other aspects of student applications.

Selective private colleges tend to place more emphasis on personal statements and essays, teacher and counselor recommendations, leadership experience, and the individual talents of applicants.

The bigger the college, the less emphasis it places on extracurricular activities, even though a student who juggles a full course load with part-time work or a major outside commitment is demonstrating the management and prioritizing skills that will be essential in college. (For this type of student, a well-crafted essay can be a good place to point out strengths or track record in this regard.)

At large and small colleges alike, a student's grades in college-preparatory courses continue to be the most significant factor in the admission decision, followed by scores on standardized admission tests and grades in all courses. 

Whether or not your school district promotes the class-ranking system, you and your colleagues must find a way to make colleges aware of your students' achievements and future potential. You can do this by providing colleges with contextual information, such as the:

  • Student's GPA
  • Activities a student was involved in
  • High school curriculum
  • Range and median of student GPAs
  • Range and median of SAT and ACT scores
  • Results of AP Exams
  • Grade distribution of the class (the percentage of the class receiving As, etc.)
  • Student portfolios (with writing or project samples)
  • Personal recommendations from teachers or counselors describing specific attributes, behaviors, skills, and achievements
  • Listing of colleges and universities that accepted students from the previous year

Most colleges say that they're looking at several different elements in the admission process. Giving them plenty of detail about your school will help them be selective in making admission decisions.