It's not a perfect science, but you can get some idea for sure.
This week, I want to answer a question I got recently from a mom. She asked:
"How can I figure out how hard it is to get into a certain college?"
This is a great question, but before I answer it, you have to know something important:
Admissions offices look at grades in context. This means that it is not just about the GPA; instead, it is about the classes a student takes, the grades a student earned, and when the student earned those grades.
In other words, just because a student doesn't get stellar grades out of the gate does not mean that he/she won't get into selective colleges. I have had many students increase their grades over time, and most colleges and universities consider upward trends when evaluating applications.
Having said this, in order to answer this question for those of you who want to know (or want to simply get an idea of the selectivity of a particular college), here's what you can do:
Go to our friends at Collegeboard.org, look at the bottom of the homepage, and use the search box to type in a name of any college. Once you get taken to that college’s homepage, click on the APPLYING link on the left. This will show you the school’s acceptance rate and a general classification of what they’re looking for in terms of GPA. Sometimes they list their median range of GPA (for example, a 3.2–3.5), which means that their average accepted student has a GPA in this range.
Other colleges just list ranges of GPAs in terms of percentages (for example, 60% of accepted students typically have a GPA that places them in the top 25% of their graduating class).
Colleges also list ranges in terms of median test scores that you can use to see what the averages are. Just understand that these ranges typically represent the 25-50th percentile. This means that 25% of the accepted class had higher test scores and 25% had lower test scores.
Also remember that there are many reasons BESIDES GPA and TEST SCORES that colleges use to admit students, so you don't have to feel anxious when you look at these ranges. Instead, you can simply use the information to compare one college to another.
Let’s say, for example, that one college has a 45% acceptance rate, 50% of their students have between a 3.2–3.5 GPA, and their average SAT scores fall between 1200 and 1300. You might find another college on your child's eventual list that has a 10% acceptance rate, 80% of their students have above a 3.5 GPA, and their average SAT scores fall between 1400 and 1500. Based on this information, you know that the second school is harder to get into than the first.
So, what you’re looking for is where your child fits within a school’s profile. (By the way—most colleges also show a profile of their admitted class on their website that is more specific than the one found on the College Board.) If your child's GPA and test scores falls in the middle range of a college’s numbers, you know that he/she stands a decent chance of getting accepted.
If we go back to the example, let’s say your child has an 1250 (SAT) and a GPA of 3.4. Your child would fall right in the middle of the first college’s admitted class. If your teen has above a 1300 and a 3.5, he/she would look even better. If your teen's score was below 1200, the college is going to be more of a reach.
AGAIN—this doesn’t mean your child won’t get in. I have students who fall outside the range but still get accepted into a particular college because they might be athletes, they might have an artistic abilities that a college wants, they might be going into an unrepresented major, or their GPA doesn’t tell the whole story (say a student got all Cs in 9th grade but As in 11th and 12th grade).
I simply use these initial numbers as a blueprint to help you rank your child's schools as “Reaches” (harder to get into), “Likelies” (realistic possibilities), and “Safeties” (most definitely going to get into).
Students who go to high schools that use Naviance Family Connection may also have access to a feature called “Scattergrams.” (There are similar stats for those schools that use SCOIR or Maia Learning.) These are graphs that show this history of acceptances, deferrals, wait lists, and denials from your particular high school over a number of years. So, you can look up a college like University of Alabama, and see how many students got in, as well as what their GPA and test scores were. The graph will then show your child's GPA and test scores as a circle on the graph, so you can check your child's chances against students from previous years at your high school.
The problem with Scattergrams is that both parents and students obsess over them and treat them like they are gospel. I think they can be very useful ROUGH tools, similar to the College Board profiles, but things have to be kept in perspective. I like to use Scattergrams simply to see how a particular college “likes” a particular high school. In other words, colleges do have high schools they will take more students from over others. I know of a very reputable private school in Los Angeles from which many students get accepted into top colleges, but very few get accepted into Northwestern. Why does this happen? Only Northwestern knows, but information like this is simply good to know so you can set your initial expectations appropriately.
Having said all this, I am still a big believer in the motto, “If you don’t ask, you can’t get.” Sure, there are probably colleges your child won’t get into. And yes, you should absolutely make sure your child's college list has some likely and safety schools, in addition to the reach schools. But I have students who get into their reaches each year. Besides, if you know my personal story, my principal told me I would never get into Stanford because my high school’s reputation was such that only two kids had gotten accepted in the prior 20 years before I applied. If I had taken her advice, I wouldn’t have applied, and I wouldn’t have gotten in.
Have a great week!