One of my favorite education columnists is the Washington Post’s Jay Matthews. This is for multiple reasons. He’s been researching and writing for approximately 10,000 years, and he likes to explore issues thoroughly. Unlike most of the reporters, bloggers and writers in the field, he has a broad understanding of most issues. However, he’s also dead wrong on some major issues (like his high school ranking methodology -- YIKES!), but he is willing to debate issues rationally and at length, online or in person. Also, he periodically quotes me -- a clear indication of his brilliance.
Jay recently posted a topic on his Admissions 101 discussion forum about the relative value of attending magnet schools. The perspectives in the forum just didn’t smell right to me, reminding me that it’s been a while since I responded to one of the most frequent questions I receive: How will the high school I attend impact my chances for college admissions?
This age-old question is normally prefaced by some of the following explanations:
* My school is so huge, and so incredibly good that it’s nearly impossible to rank in the top because everyone is above average.
* My school has a tough grading policy, so that makes me look worse than kids in easier schools.
*My school is lousy. I have bad teachers, awful facilities, and no challenging courses. I can't get a challenging course load and had rotten preparation for high school. Few students even graduate, so just getting through my school is harder than getting perfect grades at schools with more support.
* I know University X hates my school, and/or loves other schools way more.
* My school is so small, just being ranked number 2 in the class keeps me out of the top 10 percent; in fact, I have to duck just to get through the tiny, wee doors.
Remember all those times nice teachers told you there are no stupid questions? It turns out that they were wrong. Even with all the explanations above, the question of how your high school will impact your chances for college admissions remains fairly idiotic. This is because:
* Admissions officers know schools pretty well, and even if we don't know your school (we probably do), we get a profile that explains the context of your school. Admissions officers understand how to balance the impact of different schools -- largely by looking to see if you challenged yourself given what was offered and are competitive in the wider context of the admissions pool as a result.
* And even if we didn't balance different schools, you'd never know its significance -- we might like bigger schools, smaller schools, or even average-sized schools that happen to have great curling teams.
* And even if we didn’t balance schools and you knew your high school’s significance, college admissions officers wouldn’t be any more consistent with evaluating you in the context of your school’s status than they are with any other admissions factors. Therefore, it would always differ from year to year and from reader to reader.
* And even if we didn’t balance schools, you knew your high school’s significance, and we were 100% consistent, you still wouldn't know how your school was viewed by any particular college admissions officer and how that affected you in the long-run.
DISCLAIMER: There is one exception: If everyone from your high school applies to the same college or university, that institution will often be tougher on admissions. Not fair, but that's the reality.
And the biggest reason that this is pretty much a nutty question? Drum roll, please…you probably can't do anything about it!
Are you really going to move schools on that one chance you could possibly get into some specific college or university? Of course not. How about just stay in your school, do the best you can, and remember that you don't need to settle on just one college or university. If some institution doesn't want you because of your school (however unlikely that is), you'll find plenty more that DO -- and there are probably WAY better things to stress over.
DISCLAIMER #2: Some of you, of course, do have a choice of high school. I usually get this question from high school seniors (or parents of seniors), in which case I fully stand by my assertion of nuttiness. Students (and parents of students) who are not yet in or just starting high school with the access or resources to select schools, do have choices. I fully recognize this can be an agonizing choice. This is unnecessarily complicated by the idea that which school you select (Public or private? Magnet or not?) will have an undue influence on college acceptance. As noted above, it might, but you’ll NEVER know.
A far better way to make your decision, assuming you have a decision to make, is to base it on the best educational, social, and emotionally supportive environment, not on what college admissions officers MIGHT do. There are students who truly thrive in a magnet school environment, and there are others who don’t. The idea that there is a one-size-fits-all response to the question or that college admissions outcomes should be the deciding factor is, technically speaking, a steaming pile of doo-doo. Oh, that’s what smells.
Be seeing you.