Panel of Experts

Karl Schellscheidt

SAT Prep Expert

  • BSE, Princeton University '90
  • M.A., Secondary Education Seton Hall University '93
  • J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School '00

Fred Hargadon

Dean of Admission

  • Swarthmore College
  • Stanford University
  • Princeton University

Don Betterton

Financial Aid Expert

  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
  • Certified College Planner
  • Principal, Betterton College Planning

Seamus Malin

Admission Expert

  • Harvard University
    Dir. of Financial Aid
    Asst. Dean of Admission
    International Office Director

Apples and Oranges: Comparing Grades from Different High Schools

Seamus Malin -

college admissions expert advice from eprep.comAre all high school class grades created equal? One would certainly hope not. Is an “A” from an average high school better than a “B” or “C” from an academically more rigorous high school? How do college admission officers see through the grades and draw a comparison based on all the other variables that factor into a particular class grade? In today’s prepcast, Seamus Malin dives into the thought process of a college admissions officer and provides great advice how high school students can mitigate some possible misunderstandings with the college admissions office.

Apples and Oranges: Comparing Grades from Different High Schools (transcript)

Karl Schellscheidt: Hi, I’m Karl Schellscheidt. Welcome to ePrep. I have in the studio with me today Seamus Malin, a former administrator at Harvard University. Pretty excited to have Seamus here; I have a lot of questions for him so here we go.

Seamus, this is a true story. I got a call from my brother-in-law last year. My niece is at a really awesome private school and she’s struggling academically. She’s a great athlete but academically she’s a low B, high C student.

So she was a sophomore at the time I got the phone call and his question to me was this. He said, “Should I leave her at this awesome private school and let her continue to get B-’s and C+’s, or should I pull her out of there and send her to a school that’s not as tough academically and let her get B+’s and A’s?” Because his idea is, “I want her to get an education and I want her to get into a selective college. What’s the best route?”

So the question basically boils down to is a C at the elite private school equal to a B+ at what might be considered a lesser school or a less prestigious school? And I really had no idea how to answer that question. I just figured I’d throw it out to you to hopefully get my brother-in-law an answer.

Seamus Malin: Well it’s a very good question and actually it rings a resonant theme in my own family because I can remember my wife at one point in somewhat exasperation saying to me after we were trying to figure out what to do about one or two of our three children, she turned to me and said, “Well, listen, are we public or are we private education people?” Make up your mind.

And I said, “It depends.” It depends for my three daughters. For my oldest daughter it didn’t make any difference. For my second daughter it did make a difference. The question, though, has a particularly challenging component to it, and that is that this young woman is already well along the way in school A. So now you have to weigh not only the considerations about the challenging academics but you also have to weigh in the transition questions, the leaving a familiar environment where all the friends are into a new environment to make new friends and to find a way. That could be more troublesome, frankly, and could impact on the grades even though the school may not be as demanding. So it isn’t just simply that the school might be a little bit “easier,” it’s that the transition into it could also bring along with it baggage that would prevent the so-called academic success.

I think the real thing comes down to this. Is your niece happy where she is? Is she learning and can she get as much help as she possibly needs in order to do a bit better? Because if the school is that good and they know her and they love her and they care about her, they are going to represent her well and she will represent herself well. If she changes horses in midstream she’s likely to be unknown in two places and the overall impact of her application to the college could be, in fact, jeopardized by virtue of the fact that she won’t be as known as well. And even though she may have slightly better grades here and there, that may not compensate for the fact that all of a sudden she’s a more anonymous person. The independent school, part of the reason they exist is they can do a very good job; they know their students very well, they can help them get to the best colleges.

So those are the kinds of factors you have to weigh in. It’s not a very nice answer saying, “It all depends,” but I don’t know her. Those are the questions I would be asking if I were a family member.

Karl Schellscheidt: Now she did stay at the school. She’s a junior now. She’s halfway through her junior year. She is socially very happy there. Her best friends are at the school, she just in a lot of ways feels comfortable there. Although she’s not doing that well academically, she’s comfortable at the school and really enjoys being there. So I think ultimately they did make the right choice for her.

But I just want to kind of push you a little bit on this so let’s distill it and break it down and maybe take it out of her context. Is a C at an elite private school equal to a B at a lesser school? I don’t want to say public school because I’m not going to assume that all public schools are lesser than the private schools, but do college admissions people actually factor in, “This person got a C, but it was a C at this school. This person got a B at this school so they’re on par with each other.” Like a C here is equal to a B there? Or do the college admissions people not get to know the schools well enough to be able to make those comparisons?

Seamus Malin: Well the better colleges, certainly the ones that have been around doing this kind of selection process for many, many years, do their homework and know the schools very well. Usually the staff of these universities which are buried in very good candidates and therefore are selective because they have to be, they have a staff that is assigned various parts of the country. And part of the responsibility as the person, let’s say, who covers Pennsylvania is you’ve got to know the differences between the schools in Allentown and the schools in Philadelphia, and within Philadelphia what the schools are like and so forth. You go to these schools, you visit them, and you do your homework. And so you get to know them and then you read students year after year after year so you build up a knowledge.

In fact, in my early days in admissions when the numbers were more manageable, not only did you know the school but you also got to know the teachers within the school. And I don’t mean know them like you and I are chatting now, but recognize the name. “Oh, this is Mrs. Jones who is writing to us from school x. She’s written to us for many, many years. We know her well. Let’s see what she has to say about Alice,” and that kind of thing. Those days are sort of moving on because the numbers are sort of burying you; it can’t be quite as hands on as that.

But the tricky questions is you’re asking a question about comparing apples and oranges, really. And so the students who go to school x, they very often say, “Well if you compare them with school y they have no chance.” But actually they’re not compared with school y. They’re compared with kids in school x or other schools like school x, and they’re compared secondly against a general measurement standard that is agreed to by the admissions staff. They say, “Here’s what we expect from these kinds of students going to these kinds of schools.”

So they will be picking people from both pools but they’ll be looking at them within the kind of experiences they’ve had. I think Stanford has this wonderful expression that says, “It’s not much what kind of experiences you go out and create for yourself, but it’s what you do with the experiences that you landed in.” And so while everybody would love to have straight A’s, in some independent schools or even some terrific public schools, you can’t get straight A’s. The question is what have you done with the ability that you have, and have you worked to your capacity? So the C is not going to condemn you necessarily and it’s not going to be compared with the easy A at a less selective school. It’s going to be looked at within the context of where you are.

Karl Schellscheidt: Right. Just to pick up on a theme that you brought up, sometimes a kid will get what we’ll call a “bad” teacher, just a teacher who’s kind of miserable and just doesn’t seem to be in teaching for the right reasons. Is not flexible, kind of sticks it to the kids. So occasionally I’ll work with a kid who just has this bad teacher. The teacher is just not nice, doesn’t give opportunities for extra credit, and so now the kid is in the class struggling, getting a C, and sees his or her peers in the next class with the other teacher, same course, different teacher, getting A’s, the A’s that he or she should be getting. And it’s a frustrating situation.

And what a lot of parents want to do is say, “We need to switch him. We need to get him out of that class and we need to get him in the other class because he needs to get that A.”

And I always encourage kids to stick it out. I say, “Listen, when you get to college you’re not going to be guaranteed amazing teachers.”

When I got to college I actually had a lot of foreign teachers, people who had just come over from foreign countries and whose English language skills were not very good. And so I had a difficult time communicating with a lot of my teachers in college and what I wound up having to do at that point was learn how to read a math textbook and a science textbook and kind of figure it out for myself. I think that was a really valuable skill that I learned that I would not have learned had I not been forced into that situation.

I feel like when you’re in high school it’s similar in a way. If you get a bad teacher, well guess what? You better learn how to deal with the bad teacher. You better learn how to learn despite that teacher. And if the grade isn’t what you want in the end, you can still see to it that you’ve learned everything you need to in that course so when you get to the next one you can continue getting your A’s. And then hopefully the colleges will figure it out. They’ll see the A in math freshman year, they’ll see the C sophomore year, and then they’ll see the two A’s junior and senior year and figure out there must have been something going on that year. It may have been outside the student’s control.

And it makes me happy to hear you say that some colleges who have the resources actually make an effort to get to know schools and get to know teachers and might actually get to the point where, “It’s a C from so and so. We’ve seen that a million times. We’ve had kids who have been admitted and done extremely well here that have gotten the same grades that this kid has gotten.”

Seamus Malin: Well I think there’s one little caveat to be concerned about if you’re a parent. I mean, I always think as both a parent and an admissions person. And as a parent I would say you have to be on the alert for your own child that there isn’t something inappropriate going on in the classroom between the teacher and your kid, as opposed to the teacher and all kids. Sometimes that is a legitimate reason for the parents to say, “Something’s amiss here and we’d like to have this looked at and maybe moved to another classroom.” But not simply because this person in general is a tough nut on everybody. But sometimes there are particular things that affect your own child that you have to pay attention to; that’s fair enough.

Karl Schellscheidt: I agree.

Seamus Malin: But if it’s a systemic thing where the teacher has done this, you sort of have to say, “There’s some bad teachers, or there’s some bad apples in every barrel and you have to tough it out a little bit.” Agreed.

One would hope that at some point down the road, as I may have said in another comment, that the school itself or that some other source would come and write a letter explaining that teacher x in year y is generally known to be a tough — they can phrase it. They don’t have to say “is not a nice person,” they can just say “is known for having unusually high standards,” or something like this, make it sound that nobody gets A’s from this guy or gal. So there are ways that the school can present that that are not going to undercut the teacher and that are going to support the student a little bit as well.

But in the end there is no such thing as a perfect college. Colleges are populated by human beings. They have foibles, they have great qualities, but they have characteristics that don’t necessarily always match with 18 years in an optimum manner so that’s part of the challenge of university. And in secondary school you can sometimes run up against it.

The problem is, in secondary school when you’re 15 and 16, you don’t have enough experience on which to be able to put that in the context that you would have when you’re 19, 20, 21. So sometimes it’s asking a lot and that’s why parents feel they have to be the ones who step forward, understandably.

Karl Schellscheidt: Awesome. Thanks so much, Seamus.

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