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The One Piece of Your Application You Didn't Know Mattered So Much

Very few students and parents know about it, but it is one of the most contextualizing pieces of an application. Admissions officers don't realize how much they rely on it until it's missing in the application or it is simply not helpful or accurate. College counselors at high schools scramble to find time to update it at the start of a busy school year. Some wonder, "Is it really necessary?"

Yes it is.

The school profile is something that admissions officers get trained on the moment they start reading applications. They are taught to look at the school profile to know exactly what is offered at the high school and how much the student they are reading about took advantage of what was offered.
It is a document, usually ranging from two to four pages, that provides details on the high school, demographics, grading system, student body, curriculum, and even college acceptances. When a brand new admissions officer is assigned to a new region of the country, covering hundreds of high schools for the first time, they need that school profile in the student's application to get a better sense of the school and student. 
The college counselor of record is supposed to send the school profile with each student's transcript. And, usually, it is sent. But it's not always helpful to the admissions officer, nor is it always beneficial to the student coming from that high school. I ask all of my Application Nation members to search their child's high school website for the school profile. Sometimes it is found easily. Other times, they provide a link to an outside source like I gently tell them this is not the school profile. 
So, how easy is it to find your school profile and how helpful is it to you?

The best school profiles that I see are ones that provide the following information:

  • Details about the community where the high school is located. Is it 10 miles outside of a major city or is it in a remote area of the country? Knowing this, an admissions officer can visualize the community and the available resources (or lack thereof) for the school's students.
  • Racial and socio-economic backgrounds of the student body are also extremely helpful. If a school is largely made up of first-generation Americans, the students' test scores might not be as high as students coming from a school where the majority of families have college-educated backgrounds.
  • The percentage of students attending four-year colleges is the most important data point for any admissions officer. It immediately helps them determine whether the high school is a college-bound environment or not. I attended a public high school with a very low percentage of students attending four-year colleges. This can impact the quality of the students' essays, teacher recommendation letters, test scores, and the availability of an advanced curriculum. High schools with nearly 100% of its graduating class going onto four-year colleges will typically offer a very different environment.
  • An explanation of the high school's grading system is necessary. For example, does a "B" equate to an 89 to 80? Or an 89 to 83? Are Advanced Placement and Honors classes weighted? Is the school on a 10-point grading scale or a 100-point grading scale? It doesn't matter what the school uses as long as it is explained in the profile. Admissions officers will work with whatever is offered.
  • An updated list of curricula and available advanced classes needs to be updated every single year. If a high school lists that it offers 10 AP classes, yet only five are offered, a student who took the five APs will be viewed by highly selective colleges as not taking the most challenging curriculum. If the high school limits the number of AP classes a student can take each year, the profile should make note of this as well.
  • A college matriculation list is helpful as it gives the admissions officers a sense of where students go to college from that high school. 
  • Class rank needs to be explained if the high school is still holding on to this archaic system. Most high schools eliminated class rank decades ago as it tends to only reward students at the top of the class. But if a school still uses class rank, the profile needs to explain if it is a weighted or unweighted rank and how it is calculated.
  • A full explanation about how the school handled classes, grading, and scheduling during COVID-19 is necessary. In fact, high schools will need to include this information on school profiles for the next three years as any student who was in high school during COVID-19, even if they were a high school freshman during the Spring of 2020, may have been impacted by the pandemic.

The school profiles that are not helpful to students are ones that have the following information in them:

  • GPA ranges, decile (quintile, quartile, or something similar) rankings, or the highest/lowest/average GPAs in the previous graduating class. Many high schools that eliminate class rank believe they should provide this information to colleges. But all it does is give admissions officers details about where the student falls in the class. With the exception of a few colleges in the country, class rank and this unnecessary detail (which reveals class rank to some extent) are absolutely not necessary or required.
  • AP scores, percentage of students taking AP exams, or a policy statement about students being required to take AP exams if they take the corresponding AP class. Given the worldwide issues with the AP exams this past May, there is no need to draw more attention to AP scores as many students did not receive the scores they were expecting this year and do not want to feel forced into reporting those scores as they are never required for college admission.
  • Average SAT and ACT scores. Given that most colleges are test optional this year and there continues to be a huge concern about the validity of standardized tests, there is no reason for a high school to list details about its students' scores. It only will draw attention to the fact that a low-scoring student is either on par with his classmates or below average—and no one benefits from that information.

Related reading: AP Scores Are Back. Should You Report Them to Colleges?

The high school profile is not a promotional or marketing piece. It is used by admissions officers to determine as much relevant information about the student's community, school, and resources as possible. Much attention goes into the profile and many sets of eyes review it. One mistake on the profile, one unnecessary data point, or a lack of a profile to begin with could affect how an admissions officer evaluates a student's application.
I was once a college counselor at a high school. Before that I was an admissions officer and dean of admissions on the college side of the process. I know how important the school profile can be for colleges, and I also recognize the demands our high schools face right now. I hope I can continue to be helpful and supportive not only to families through this process, but also to the many high schools across the country that want to do everything they can to celebrate their students.