Fairly often, we get questions from prospective students (or, more commonly, concerned parents) about the effects their choice of high school will have on their chances of admission. Once, I even got a call from an alum asking for guidance about where to move and what to look for in a school system to maximize his eight-year-old child's likelihood of getting into the college of her choice. Usually, however, the questions run more along the line of "My school is much more rigorous than most schools, so my (child's) grades are slightly lower than they would have been at another school. Will this hurt her?" or "My school doesn't offer any APs! Will it hurt me to have not taken advanced classes, even though they're not offered?" We also get variations on this theme, like "My school only offers two years of foreign languages, but you recommend three years! What should I do?" or "This one history teacher was ridiculously harsh in grading, and no one got higher than a B! Will this one lower grade kill my (child's) chances of admission?"
My first impulse is usually to tell people with these kinds of questions "Relax. It'll all be okay," but of course the appropriate response is slightly more nuanced than that. Basically it all comes down to the fact that high schools are different, and we know that. Trust me, I had the dubious distinction of attending three different high schools, and I know that not all schools are created equal. Armed with the knowledge that high schools are not all the same, we then make every effort to evaluate your academic record within the context of your high school.
Believe it or not, the person reading your application is probably reasonably familiar with your high school. Depending on how common it is for us to receive applications from your school, we may be more or less familiar with your school. Some schools we know very well, and others not so much, but for all schools we usually receive along with your transcript a profile of your school, reminding us of all the pertinent facts and figures. We divide the country into geographic regions, so that we can become familiar with the schools in your area, and are best able to represent to the admissions committee to what degree a particular student is taking advantage of the educational opportunities available to him or her, and what this record from this particular high school says about the quality of this student.
For example, if you live in New York City, Leslie Braat will be the first reader of your application. She has been reading applications from NYC for a number of years, and she knows your high school. She probably knows it very well, and she can tell you (often tells us when we're sitting in committee, making decisions) that, for instance, a 3.5 gpa at one school will represent the same caliber of student signified by a 4.0 gpa at another school.
As another example, I read applications from much of the Southeast, and I often get applications from rural schools that I'm not familiar with. If I look at a transcript from one of those schools and don't see many advanced classes, I know better than to categorize the student as a slacker. I'll check and see what advanced classes this school offers, and often find out that this student, who is taking what might be a modest workload at another school, is actually taking an exceptionally rigorous courseload for this particular school. That information then becomes an important part of evaluating the student's academic commitment and achievement.
We also know that not all classes are created equal, even within a single high school. Obviously we know that an AP history class will be more rigorous than one taught at the remedial level, but the educational landscape of a school can be much more complicated than that. Perhaps one history teacher is much more rigorous than all the others, and gives lower grades, or perhaps your school doesn't designate classes as APs, but still teaches them at the college level. We know that all of this happens. We're not all-knowing gods, but we do our best to place your transcript in a broader context, and then also realize that there's a bigger story behind each and every transcript than we could possibly know. That's why we don't base our offers of admission (or even our offers of scholarships) solely on your high school gpa.
We do a holistic review of every application, which means that we take into consideration everything we learn about you by reading your application. So, for instance, we might learn from your guidance counselor that you had a really bad case of mono your sophomore year, and that's why your grades that year were lower than usual. Or in your teacher recommendations, your teachers might rave about how you're a fantastic student and a dynamic presence in the classroom and we might conclude that your academic merits are greater than we would have realized just from looking at the grades on your transcript. There are endless possibilities and variations, but it all comes down to the fact that, yes, we know your circumstances are unique. We will do our best to understand them, and will then move forward with the knowledge that there's always more to each and every story.
Like I said, we're not all-knowing, and we're not perfect, but we do try very hard to place students' academic records within the context of their high schools, and evaluate their applications accordingly.