Does High School Class Rank Matter in College Admissions?

on September 6, 2017

Does class rank matter in college admissions?


Many ambitious teenagers and parents assume that class rank no longer is an admission roadblock at elite colleges because so many high schools have stopped calculating class rank.


In spurning the class-rank yardstick, high schools are attempting to lower the high-stakes pressure that high-achieving students feel about outperforming their classmates.


It sounds like a perfect strategy. After all, if a high school no longer compiles statistics on what students are on top, how would any college admission committee know?


Attending a high school that no longer calculates class rank doesn’t mean you are in the clear. Class rank remains an important factor for more prestigious colleges and universities that can get around ranking boycotts.


Here are five things you need to know about class rank and college admissions:


1. Elite Colleges and Universities Want 10-percenters


If you are aiming for the most elite colleges, you can’t ignore your class rank. The universities with the shiniest brand names can demand near perfection from applicants and one way they do that is by requiring nearly all students to be within the top 10 percent of their high school class.


An excellent argument can be made that a bright, ambitious student in the top 15 percent, 20 percent or 25 percent of their class will do just as well as those with even more impressive ranking. It’s unlikely that you’d find any colleges admission reps who disagree with this.


The reason for the collegiate preoccupation with class rank, however, is that it’s an admission factor that U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) considers relevant and important.


USNWR wants to know what percentage of a college’s freshmen came from the top 10 percent of their high school class. This is one reason why universities eager to maintain their grip on a top USNWR position will favor these students.


Relying on class rank among high schools in a state also can be a way to diversify public universities that aren’t allowed to practice affirmative action.


Class Rank Examples


In the most recent available admission figures, here are examples of the percentage of freshmen at some of the most selective universities who were in the top 10 percent of their senior class:

2. Students with a Hook Sometimes Squeak by


You’ll notice in the statistics above that a small percentage of students at elite institutions gain admission without being at top of their class.


If you are wondering if you could be one of these lucky teenagers, you’ll almost inevitably need an admission hook.


Here are the common hooks that can boost applicants’ admission chances even if their academic records are not as good:

  • Legacy applicant
  • Recruited athlete
  • Child of a celebrity
  • Child of extremely wealthy parents
  • Promising minority student
  • Winner of a major national or international competition

3. Class Rank won’t be a Factor at Most Colleges


Class rank will not be a major actor at most private and public colleges and universities. Below are the percentages of students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes at some public flagship universities as well as nonselective state institutions.


As you can see from the following list, class rank is going to be a non-issue at nonselective state universities:

4. Colleges Rank You


At this point, you might be puzzled about how colleges can use rankings when fewer high schools are bothering with the practice. College admission offices, however, can create their own internal rankings among the students from the same high school who apply.


Parke Muth, a former associate dean and director of international admissions at the University of Virginia, provides an insider look at how this works:


The admission office at many institutions read applications individually first, but as the process nears the end, most go through a school group review.


“What this term means is that a computer program runs the list of all applicants from all secondary schools along with the decision, test scores and some other rubrics,” Muth said.  “Whether a school ranks or not, the computer list orders students by rank or GPA rather than alphabetically. Even schools that don’t rank still give GPA, so that the group of applicants itself is ranked.”


Once that initial list is compiled, an admission staffer checks for any anomalies. For instance, someone with a lower GPA was on the preliminary acceptance list while applicants with higher GPAs weren’t. Or a student might not have taken as challenging a course load compared to his or her peers. Based on this review, applicants from a specific high school could be moved up or down the list.


With admission slots tight, students that admission readers had slated for acceptance might get rejected or put on the college’s waiting list.


5. How to Find a College’s Class Rank Statistics


It’s easy to find out what percentage of freshmen at an individual college were in the top 10 percent of their senior class at their respective high schools.


To retrieve these class-rank figures, you should head to the College Board’s website and follow these instructions:

  • Type a university’s name into the College Board’s website
  • Click the Applying link
  • Click on Academics & GPA link
  • Scroll down to find the heading entitled, High School Class Rank

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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