Fluffy Credits, or how do I get my kid into the top 10 percent?

A friend and parent of a high-school freshman recently wrote:

Q.  I have a question for you regarding high school academics and the college search. We were having dinner with friends last night (one kid @ McGill, one on his way to Johns Hopkins, and one in high school) and mentioned that G. is taking health and PE this summer in order to get them out of the way. They told us that some uber-reaching students will actually hold off on taking health until senior year because they’re trying to game the system a bit and make sure that they don’t have any “fluffy credits” on their transcripts when they’re applying to colleges.

Have you heard of this and what do you think about it?

A.  Heh. Fluffy credits. What a great term.QandA block

I’m a bit agog at the thought of seniors taking 9th grade health, but I’m sure it happens. This is all to do with weighted course credits, as in when Honors and AP courses earn five points for an A on a four point scale.

A student earning straight As through high school, and taking a larger number of  non-weighted classes, such as arts electives, PE, band, etc., can end up with a lower weighted GPA than a student who maxed-out the weighted classes. That straight-A student will have earned an unweighted 4.0 GPA, but here’s the reason those uber-reaching students are putting off [non-weighted] health until senior year:  class rank is based upon the weighted GPA.

First, though, more about the GPAs. You’ve likely seen  @UVADeanJ’s tweets during reading season–she and her colleagues across the country run into true weirdness, like an applicant with a 12.31 GPA.

@UVADeanJ tweet@UVADeanJ tweetThis is why the school profile is so important for the colleges–they get the context of the GPA  and how each school weights grades (or not) from the profile. I’ve been told by a reliable source that UVa recalculates all of the GPAs for its applicants, to build comparables (and that a local high school math teacher has the part-time job to help with this).

August 28, 2013 Letter to the Editor, Charlottesville Daily Progress

“Albemarle shouldn’t rank students,” August 28, 2013, Charlottesville Daily Progress. Click to enlarge.

Whether that’s true or not, many colleges look for where that student’s GPA stands in comparison to his or her peers:  the class rank.

Why the class rank matters. A top class rank is crucial for those uber-reaching students you mentioned, the ones trying to get into very selective schools. At UVA, for example, 93 percent of the incoming class was in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and 98 percent were in the top 25 percent (or quartile).

See Frederick Smyth’s recent letter to the editor encouraging Albemarle schools to stop reporting class ranks because of the import colleges place on this arbitrary cut-off.

“Rankings are crude attempts to simplify complex academic records and often create impressions of meaningful differences between students when none exist.”

. . .

“Being in the top 10 percent is no guarantee of admission… but a lesser label, such as being in the second-highest 10 percent, nearly guarantees rejection.”

Most high schools don’t publicize a class rank of graduating seniors, as in listing the students in order by GPA. Instead, they determine where the GPA cut-off is for the top 10 percent (or decile), the top quarter (or quartile), the top half, etc. Which of those categories the student meets does get reported to colleges, at least in our school system.

Here’s what our counselor told us during Mod Squad Pete’s junior year:  you cannot tell ahead of time where the top 10 percent GPA cutoff will be for any given class, because that will be computed only at the very end of the senior year.

What she could tell us was where the top decile and quartile cutoffs were for the previous year’s class and, if Pete had been part of that class, where his GPA would have positioned him. (This also provided some much-needed incentive to maintain his senior year grades.)

Here, from our high school’s website,  are screenshots from the school’s profile, from three different years. A weighted 4.50 GPA sounds really good, but in 2010 a student with that GPA would not have made the top decile. In 2008 a weighted GPA of 4.010 made the top quartile, but not in the other two example years.

Class Rank based on weighted GPA

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.37.15 PM Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.38.23 PM

That’s a long-winded explanation of fluffy credits and why some students put them off until senior year. I’ll get to what I think of all this next time around. Thanks for the great question!

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Filed under Getting In, High School

3 responses to “Fluffy Credits, or how do I get my kid into the top 10 percent?

  1. Pingback: Straight talk from a UVa admissions officer: everything’s important. | Dr. StrangeCollege or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Journey

  2. I can’t stop myself…I promise that we don’t recalc GPAs at UVa. The high school profile provides the context (methodology and scale) and we don’t feel the need. We spend much more time analyzing course progression and grades. The GPA just doesn’t tell the story the way the full transcript does. 🙂

  3. Aw, thanks for giving in to the temptation! 🙂
    I always appreciate corrections and clarifications here. (And have fun this reading season.)

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