Many parts of the college application and admissions process are very visible to students and parents—grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities come to mind. Because of their visibility, these components tend to take on the utmost importance in students’ and parents’ minds.

Don’t get us wrong; these are very important factors. But it’s also important to remember that there are other factors that aren’t directly under your control. For example, teacher recommendations, counselor recommendations, and a student’s context (school, region, state, etc...) are all factors (among many) that play a part in the assessment of an application.

By acknowledging and remembering this, you can take a bit of the burden off of yourself. Whether or not you get into a given school has to do with things that are under as well as out of your control, so focus on controlling what you can and not perseverating on what’s beyond out of your hands.

Today, we’d like to shed some light on one of the most important but least-discussed elements of the college process: the school report. There are technically two school reports that go to colleges. One is a document put together by your high school that gives admissions officers an overview of the school (number of people in a class, breakdown of student demographics, number of advanced/AP classes offered, etc.). If you’re curious, you can likely find this school report right on your school’s website. This report is often submitted with a college application.

The other school report—what we’re going to discuss today—is a portion of the Common Application that is filled out by the school counselor. The two reports contain a lot of the same information. The difference is that one is in a format chosen by the school (so sometimes contains more information), and one is a form that the school counselor fills out within the Common Application.

Today’s article is by Liz Adams, a former Harvard Admissions Officer and one of Signet's Admissions Consultants. We hope you find it helpful in expanding your understanding of the many factors in the admissions process, and please don’t hesitate to drop us a line if you have any questions.

What is a School Report?

By now you’ve probably heard plenty about how crucial essays and teacher recommendations are for college applications. But people rarely talk about one important component: the school report.

The school report is the form that is filled out by your school college counselor (or equivalent). It includes a transcript, a recommendation letter, information about the school’s academic program in general, and how you compare to other students in your class.

The school report serves as both an academic and personal snapshot of a student’s application, and can be a crucial starting point for admissions officers in assessing candidacy. It establishes the “context” against which students are compared—both within their own school and among students from other schools.

Of course, you cannot (and should not!) control what a counselor reports in this section. However, being aware of this piece of the application can be helpful for you in understanding the way admissions officers view your application in the larger context.

So let’s take a closer look!

Anatomy of a School Report

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    • While some information about class rank and GPA is also found on a transcript, having all this information collected in one place is convenient for an admissions officer. This section also allows for additional information to let an admissions officer calibrate what class rank and GPA mean at this particular school, which ensures that you are not being judged against the standards of another school.
    • The percentage of graduating students immediately attending two- or four-year institutions helps an admissions officer get a feel for the context of the school as a whole. A school sending 100% of students to 4-year institutions is likely quite a different setting from a school sending 29% to 4-year institutions. This setting is crucial for admissions officers to understand up front, so that students are being appropriately assessed in context.
    • Information on the number of advanced courses offered and how demanding a student’s course load is serves as an at-a-glance benchmark for how rigorous your academic work has been. This is particularly useful in familiarizing an admissions officer with the more atypical features of a school’s curriculum. Perhaps your school doesn’t offer AP or IB classes. Perhaps only a few students per year are selected to take AP European History. Perhaps it is impossible for a student to take AP Physics and AP Calculus in the same year. Admissions officers can read a lot of information in the few questions here to ensure that they fully understand what each student’s curriculum means.
    • Understanding how long a counselor has known this student is important in evaluating the context of this recommendation. At some schools, counselors work with their students for all four years, while in others, they meet only a few times right before college applications are due. This information ensures that students who attend schools where the counselors are overloaded are not being penalized for that, and vice versa.
    • These student ratings don’t necessarily say a lot to an admissions officer, but they are a good reminder to parents and students that counselors cannot recommend everyone equally! An admissions officer will be much less likely to trust the judgment of a counselor who marks every single student as “One of the top few I’ve encountered in my career,” so it’s in both your and your counselor’s best interest for these rankings to be an honest assessment.

So there you have it: the anatomy of the school report! But what does it actually mean for your application?

How Does an Admissions Officer Use This Information?

The school report serves as a heuristic for the context of an applicant. In other words, it helps to interpret your transcript, and thus provide a basis for a deep understanding of where a student comes from. For example, let’s consider two different students, each of whom has taken the same three AP classes.

The first student has a 3.7 GPA (out of 4.0) at a school that doesn’t rank, but has a graduating class of 53 students. 100% of students at this school go on to a 4-year college immediately after graduating, and the school offers 20+ AP courses. The counselor has indicated that their course load is “demanding” and the other check marks all fall into the range of “Excellent.”

The second student has a 3.6 GPA and is ranked 13th in a class of 835. This school offers only 3 AP courses; 18% of students immediately attend 4-year colleges. The counselor has indicated that this student’s course load is “most demanding” and the other ratings are all “One of the top few in my career.”

While the two students have the same number of AP classes under their belt, and the first student’s GPA is slightly higher, the details from the school report create very different portraits. The first student seems to have played it safe; they have done well but not exceptionally, in a pool of about 50 peers. The second student, however, has maximized the available opportunities and managed to stand out to the counselor in a class of over 800 students, a major achievement.

Admissions officers do not make decisions based solely on this little bit of information, of course! They will take this information and combine it with the things that they learn in the rest of the application—especially the teacher recommendations and the essay. But this section is crucial for creating context, and is a good example of how different environments can come across on paper.

While it might seem stressful to think about the parts of the application that are out of your control, we encourage you to look at this as a reminder that the college admissions process is not a referendum on your character. There are many, many factors that play into the assessment of each application. Our advice? Build a diversified school list, put your best foot forward, and try to be zen about what comes next.

This article was co-written with Liz Adams, one of Signet's Admissions Consultants.

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