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How a ‘high school profile’ makes or breaks a college application

Since the Common Application made significant changes in membership policies a number of years ago, many colleges moved to streamline admissions requirements and eliminated elements of what was once considered essential to a complete application for admission. For a surprising number of colleges, gone are personal statements, counselor recommendations, teacher recommendations and for a growing number of institutions—test scores.

According to the Common App requirement grid and information provided on the FairTest website, out of 823 Common App members listed on the College Deadlines, Fees and Requirements grid:

  • About 40 percent do not require personal statements (the basic Common App essay)

  • Over 53 percent do not require counselor recommendations

  • Over 61 percent do not require teacher recommendations

  • About 44 percent require neithera counselor recommendation nor a teacher recommendation

  • Almost 42 percent don’t alwaysrequire test scores (note that FairTestand the Common App differ slightly as to definitions for these policies)

  • And 15 percent don’t always require test scores AND don’t require a counselor recommendation or a teacher recommendation

So what’s left? Grades and rigor of high school course work as reported by the student or outlined on an official transcript provided by the high school.

But considering issues of grade inflation or subjectivity, how do colleges assess the value of course and grade information? By using a very handy tool called the high school “profile.

For the record, profiles are generally attached to every transcript or as part of a complete “secondary school report” submitted to colleges.

And given the crucial role this single document plays in the college admissions process, it’s shocking how few students and parents are familiar with their own school’s “official” profile.

For starters, virtually every high school has one.

And its value is enormous, as the profile officially translates your transcript into terms that college admissions offices can use to compare your record against those submitted by other candidates. It also helps readers evaluate a student’s performance relative to other applicants within the sameschool.

In other words, the profile places you in context of your school and your school in context of other schools in the district, state, and nation.

“…as former admissions officers, we will tell you that a well-done school profile makes all the difference,” explains Alison Cooper Chisolm and Anna Ivey, in How to Prepare a Standout College Application. “It gives a much richer context for evaluating an applicant’s academic abilities and achievements.”

A good high school profile will include

  • Basic school demographics

  • Grading system and how GPA’s are calculated

  • Class ranking policies

  • Scheduling system

  • Profile of most recent graduating class including grade distribution, national awards earned, standardized test score averages (ACT, SAT), and AP score distributions

  • Course offerings with an emphasis on honors, IB, or AP classes

  • Extracurricular opportunities

  • Percent of students attending 2- and 4-colleges

The most helpful profiles also explain class selection policies, prerequisite requirements, or general schedule restrictions affecting course options. For example, if a school has a policy that limits the number of AP classes a student may take in one year, then that policy should be clearly stated. Or if certain classes have “prerequisites,” those too should be noted.

And be aware that there’s a great deal of information that can be read “between the lines” of a high school profile. For example, even high schools that claim not to rank students often provide a very exact GPA distribution that allows colleges to estimate or “force” a rank.

But despite the importance of these documents, variation among profiles—even in a single school district—can be startling.

Some are glossy and detailed; others are much simplerand far from detailed. Some are up-to-date and specific; others are more generic.

And it’s not unusual for pricey private schools to produce 4-color, multi-page marketing pieceson behalf of their students.

Yet even knowing how crucial these documents are in the admissions process, school administrators sometimes put minimal effort into the preparation and presentation of statistical information critical in evaluating student credentials. Input on what should be included on the profile from those most affected—college-bound students and their families—is seldom sought.

The College Boardhas developed a detailed set of guidelinesfor the preparation of high school profiles. In general, schools should limit their documents to one page—front and back—on regular (not glossy) 8.5” x 11” paper, using computer-friendly dark ink, as many colleges scan profiles into their systems.

Above all, high schools must update their profiles annually. They need to highlight changes in ranking and/or grading policies as well as document any alterations to curriculum or diploma requirements.

And by the way, the high school profile should never be a confidential document.You should be permitted to review and maybe even comment on the document that will accompany your transcript to all the colleges on your list. And note that these documents can be political “hot potatoes”—leading schools to take the less controversial route by including fewer details on student performance.

In addition to seeing a copy of your school profile, you may also want to evaluate profiles from neighboring or competing schools to judge how yours compares. In fact, underclassmen and their families may want to use the profile to track how well the school is doing or to set personal academic goals.

Note that while some profiles are posted on the web, others are only available directly through school counseling offices.

And if you think your school is not fairly or accurately represented by the profile, ask questions and get involved.

How you and your school stack up against the competition might well affect your admissions prospects.

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