As you are applying to your colleges, you may be wondering if there are certain requirements that you need to meet in order to be accepted. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, but while there is no student profile that we can definitively say gets accepted to a top school, we can get close to describing what type of profile you should aim for.

Previously, we’ve discussed what kinds of grades you should aim to have on your transcript to be accepted to a competitive school. Here, we’ll do a similar deep dive into evaluating your high school class rank. Read on for analysis of what your class rank signifies, what you should aim to achieve, and how adcoms will weigh your rank in the process of coming to their admissions decision.


The Unavoidable: Adcoms Compare You to Other Students

At their core, college admissions committees are in the business of comparing many students to each other in order to decide who would be a good fit for their school. Adcoms use various tools—including your test scores, your application, and your performance in your interview (if applicable)—to try to make the most informed decisions that they can.

One of the best tools available to an adcom in the process of comparing students is to analyze an applicant’s class rank because, most basically, ranking students within a grade does the very same thing that adcoms are doing (when considering academic accomplishment). It is a way of positioning you within your graduating class to indicate how your grades compare to those of other students that were trained in the same environment as you.

Any competitive college is going to look to accept students who had considerably stronger grades than their peers in high school; thus, these top schools are looking for students with relatively high rankings in your high school graduating class.

At most top colleges, 90% or more of the students in a given graduating class were ranked in the top 10% of their high schools. Most Top 30 schools are largely comprised of students who ranked in the top 20% of their class, and this pattern continues onward—as a school becomes less selective, there is a higher likelihood that its student body did not rank in the top 10%, 20%, etc. of their graduating class. Though these numbers are not set in stone, they can be useful to you if you are trying to gauge your likelihood of being accepted to a given university.

In sum, adcoms are in the business of comparing students, and thus will certainly look at your class rank to see how you compare to other students at your school. Rest assured that they will do their due diligence in contextualizing you within your high school graduating class and environment.


What if my school doesn’t rank?

 If your school does not officially rank students in the grade, fear not: Adcoms are adept at figuring out how to contextualize you within your grade and school. As we have said, this is their job. Since many high schools do not calculate class rank, you will definitely not find yourself at a disadvantage when applying to colleges if your high school does not..

That said, we urge you to remember that this is not an excuse to completely disregard your grades in comparison to those of your peers, since, as we have noted, colleges will compare you to your classmates regardless of if your school officially ranks you or not.


What Does It All Mean?

Class rankings are simply a way of indicating which students have the highest GPA in the class. Different schools will calculate GPA in slightly different ways. For example, some schools will “weight” their GPAs, which means that they allow an A in an AP or accelerated class to count for more points than an A in a standard high-school level class. Some schools do not do this. Most schools calculate GPA on a scale of 0 to 4.0, with 4.0 representing a report card with straight As; meanwhile, other schools may not calculate GPA at all.

As we have mentioned, you need not worry about what method your school uses—adcoms will look at you in the context of your school and will keep that in mind when comparing you to students from other schools. If your high school is know for grade deflation, grade inflation, or anything else that might affect your GPA, the adcom will also be aware of this.

As you might imagine, the student with the highest class ranking is usually the student with the highest GPA in the class. When students have exactly the same GPA, they will usually be ranked at a tie; the only time that a tie cannot occur is if these students are competing for the position of valedictorian or salutatorian. In those cases, high schools will generally award the higher ranking to the student who has taken more AP and/or pre-AP classes in their four years of high school.

Given this, a high class ranking can imply two things: that you took a challenging course load and performed well in those courses. On the flip side, a lower class rank will signify that you may not have taken the most challenging course load that your high school could, or that you could have performed better in the classes you did take.


Help! I think my class rank is low…

In rare cases, a student may cite exceptional circumstances to excuse or explain a lower class rank. If your class rank is lower than you think it should be due to some personal or family problem that directly affected your ability to perform in school, schools will not look to penalize you for this. In these cases, you should be sure to communicate with adcoms in order to ensure that they have as exhaustive an understanding of you and your high school performance as possible.

If you find yourself citing an exceptional circumstance, you will still want to prove that you are able to manage a heavy and rigorous course load. To do this, it will be helpful to show an upward trend in your class rank (i.e. that your grades have improved over time).


Parting Words

Your class rank—or, if your school doesn’t rank you, your general academic standing in comparison to your peers—is just one of many aspects of your profile that adcoms will consider as they are deciding whether or not to admit you. You do not need to be the valedictorian or salutatorian of your class to be offered admission at a top school. You certainly should not refrain from applying to a top university for fear that your class rank isn’t perfect, especially if other aspects of your application are strong.

That said, you should obviously try to aim for as high a class rank as you can achieve so that you are sure to put your best foot forward when applying to college. Admissions committees look at class rankings for a reason, after all—they are a good indicator of how you have achieved in high school and whether or not you’ll do well at a given college.


Have more questions? Need help applying to a competitive college? Contact us to learn more about our College Application Guidance Program today!

Lily Calcagnini

Lily Calcagnini

Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.
Lily Calcagnini