You’ve spent your entire high school career studying your butt off to get straight As. Maybe you invest so much effort into academics because you think doing so will help you stand out among your classmates. Heck, maybe you even dream of being valedictorian! But does class rank actually make you better?
We reached out to three education experts to discuss everything you need to know about the high school ranking system. Here’s the scoop on how it works, what it means and whether or not getting good grades will get you into your top-choice college.
1. Your rank is a result of your GPA
When it comes to class rank, the most crucial factor is the strength of your grade point average. This is due to the fact that your specific rank is based on how you compare to your classmates.
According to Sally P. Springer, Ph.D., Associate Chancellor Emerita at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College, several ranking methods exist. “The most common way is to calculate a student’s weighted cumulative GPA and then order students based on that GPA,” she says.
That makes sense, but what’s the deal with weighted grades? Missy Rose, the director of college counseling at Laurel School, explains that certain courses carry more weight. “If grades are weighted —that is, AP and honors courses are assigned extra points— then the rigor of the curriculum makes a difference in addition to the actual grades earned,” she says. Essentially, these classes end up being worth more because they’re designed to be more difficult than other options.
2. Many schools have stopped ranking
If you’ve ever searched for your rank and struck out, know that you’re not alone. “Few independent schools rank these days,” Rose says. She adds that the school she works at has abandoned the system entirely.
Similarly, Judi Robinovitz, a certified educational planner and founder of Score At The Top, says “most Florida schools do not rank.” This is important to know because it could leave you with one less thing to worry about. If your school happens to be one that doesn’t rank, then the time you would’ve spent stressing about the system can now go toward focusing on your essays, resume and other parts of your college applications.
The ranking system is experiencing a plunge in popularity because of the fact that so many high schools do it differently. This makes it challenging for colleges to compare applicants. Although, Springer shares that college admissions officers like having access to your class rank because it allows them to evaluate your overall academic performance.
“It can be harder to earn a high GPA at some schools than at others,” she says. “For example, a cumulative GPA of 4.4 at School A does not necessarily reflect stronger academic performance than a GPA of 4.1 at School B. The 4.1 student at School B may be ranked number one in her class, while the School A student may have a class rank that is much lower.”
In short, the inconsistencies of class rank come from the lack of curricular consistency among high schools across the country ––because the same course could be taught by two teachers in two completely different ways, it becomes much more challenging to say a grade assigned by one teacher carries as much weight as a grade assigned by another.
3. Straight As don’t guarantee success
Yes, being the crème de la crème of your graduating class is a tremendous honor. And yes, obtaining that honor does make you a more desirable college candidate than that guy who wrote his Lord of the Flies essay on a used Starbucks napkin. But, it is not a surefire sign of success.
“Being number one in your class does not determine [college] acceptance,” Robinovitz says.
Rose agrees with this. “Every year, places like the Ivies deny hundreds of valedictorians,” she says. “If grades are unweighted, then students taking the easiest courses and earning all As can rank higher than students taking extremely challenging courses who may not have even one A-.”
You may think that sticking to a relatively easy schedule is a good strategic move, especially if it’s senior year and you feel like you’re so over hard classes. Unfortunately, colleges can—and will—sniff out this type of suspicious schooling and count it against you because it gives them the impression that you may not be as motivated as other applicants.
Loading your schedule with honors and AP courses that are too challenging is also the wrong way to go, so strike a nice balance by signing up for interesting classes that aren’t too intense to handle.
4. Colleges want you to be well-rounded
Earning a report card that is worthy of your parents’ refrigerator is an amazing accomplishment. As you chase your class’s top spot, though, keep this in mind: there needs to be more to you than your GPA.
Robinovitz, Rose and Springer all agree that class rank isn’t the primary piece that colleges take into consideration. The real MVP is, as Robinovitz puts it, “The totality of your transcript.” Rose says that admissions officers want to see that you’ve challenged yourself throughout high school. They look at the combination of your past and present courses and the grades you got from them. Springer adds that this is “generally cited as a very important factor in the admissions process.”
Of course, your transcript isn’t the only factor. “If there was a way to quantify how strong someone’s extracurricular commitment is, then colleges would likely use that,” Robinovitz says. Solid grades and test scores do matter, but she tells us “it’s who you are as a person that really makes the determination.”
In order to get a sense of how successful you could end up being at a certain college, many admissions officers check out a group of factors that aren’t necessarily grade-based. Springer says the group may include extracurricular involvement and leadership, letters of recommendation, essays and challenges you have overcome. In addition to this, both Robinovitz and Rose indicate that having an interest or talent that fits the needs of a particular college could also give you an edge in the admissions process.
Don’t be afraid to give yourself a pat on the back if you cracked the top 10 percent of your class. You’ve earned it, girl! However, do remember that school isn’t just a numbers game. While great grades are definitely worthy of celebration, spotting potential success in college requires more than just a simple glance at your rank—if your school even assigns one to you. College admissions officers aren’t interested in the 4.0 GPA you may have earned by snoozing your way through easy classes. They’d rather see a transcript full of tough courses, a resume full of involvement and a personality full of passion for school and life.