College admissions, scholarships, and overall well-roundedness: why class rank is still important

By Ian Dinmore

Recently, it has been proposed that the class rank system in Anne Arundel County be abolished. The champion of this issue is our student representative on the school board, Josie Urrea. Urrea, a senior at Severna Park High School, the current Student Member of the Board (SMOB), and Vice President of the Board of Education (BOE), claims that class rank creates a toxic environment where students are pitted against each other, saying this occurs across the county. Her solution is to terminate the class rank system, with it the valedictorian and salutatorian awards, and focus more on the cum laude honors system that was implemented in 2017.

Since her initial proposals, the county school board has voted to move the idea forward to the public comment stage, where the residents of the county–including students–can give feedback on the prospective policy. County wide, ending the class rank system would do more harm than good by making the complicated college admissions process even more challenging, and less favorable, towards Anne Arundel County students, and eliminating a key contributor to student’s work ethic.

College applications are a daunting task awaiting any Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) senior wanting to go on to higher education. The application process is a marathon, as prospective college students try to perfect their essays, get exemplary test scores, and maintain high grades. But, after the hard work has been put in, it is fairly easy to enter these numbers into college applications. This part, at least once the SAT has been taken and an acceptable score achieved, is the seemingly easy and stress-free part of the college admissions process. We don’t have to worry about grammar as we input our GPA or standardized test scores, and it only costs us a few dollars to send transcripts to colleges. These data points also make it more convenient for colleges to sort through the countless applications they receive, enabling them to set a minimum threshold using a certain data point (say, class rank) and run a computer program to automatically cut down the number of applications they must review. However, if class rank, one of these common data points, was removed, the computer would have to set aside our applications for individual review by a human, a huge inconvenience to a college admissions office strapped for time. Instead of being automatically put into the “passed” group, AACPS students’ transcripts would be flagged for review and tabled. Then, an anxious college admissions official would have to scan through our application as fast as possible, probably frustrated that he or she must manually go through the various numbers on our application to see if we meet a baseline. This is before our applications are scrutinized and a final decision is made and this is just to make it into consideration for acceptance.

On the other hand, even if class rank is done away with, colleges have many other data points they can use for these baselines, such as GPA, SAT, ACT, and AP test scores. But say you had a bad day on test day and bombed your SAT or ACT, receiving a less than stellar score. Now that frustrated college admissions official hastily searching your application for some data point to replace the missing class rank sees your below average SAT score, looks right past that honor roll GPA, and declines you. Similarly, a computer program looking at multiple data points registers that you have no class rank, so it defaults to another input, the bad SAT score, and denies you because of this single, sub-par data point. All this could have been avoided if your top 50 percent class rank had just been included in that application. Now, when you receive your denial notice from the college, all of the supposed angst and anxiety you avoided in high school by not having to worry about class rank is placed on you at once, but now you have no time to fix it. College applications are past due, all that work in high school to get into your dream college has been foiled by one bad SAT—and the lack of class rank on your application.

It is quite likely, though, that many of us would be accepted just fine to college without having to provide class rank, making this a non-issue. Unfortunately, the usefulness of class rank does not end at the college application because high school class rank can affect us all the way through higher education.

How can a reflection of our performance in high school possibly impact us at a college potentially on the other side of the country? Scholarships. As the cost of college increases, many AACPS students are looking for scholarships to help them finance their higher education. It is an important enough issue that our school counseling department has set up a scholarship blog to assist us in our search. Many of these scholarships, which would save us from being swamped in debt before even starting to make money, have strict application procedures. Some involve essays, others GPA, and more, yes, involve class rank. While the University of Maryland does not provide specific information about its scholarship application requirements, it states that applicants will be considered based on academic merit. However, the third largest university in the nation, The Ohio State University, offers a much more detailed look at its scholarship requirements. Being an out-of-state university, the cost of Ohio State is much higher for us in Anne Arundel County, but scholarships are available to help us out. In particular, the National Buckeye Scholarship, designed specifically for non-Ohio residents, awards a total of $55,000 over four years, effectively lowering the tuition to in-state levels. To qualify to apply, all that is needed is a minimum SAT or ACT score set by the college. Oh, and a class ranking within the top 25 percent.

Students in Anne Arundel County may not necessarily want to attend Ohio State, or just have not considered it, but Ohio State and many other institutions are attracting attention from out-of-state students by offering scholarships like The National Buckeye. For these scholarships though, there is no manual review pile like there is for college applications. The requirements for scholarships are not flexible, so if every AACPS student’s application is missing class rank, every student will be denied any award based on class rank, eliminating us from “free college money” in the form of scholarships. Since we will have worked for four years to make it to college, we should at least be eligible the receive all the help we can to make these dreams possible.  

Besides the implications it has on college admissions and scholarships, class rank also plays a fundamental role in high school achievement. In a teenager’s evolving world, class rank is a known statistic that can provide constant motivation for learning. Without the drive to reach a personal goal of a certain class rank, many of us would not aspire to learn as much in school, seeing no reward for the effort we would have to put in.

Some argue, though, that class rank puts too much emphasis on taking an insane schedule, loaded with AP classes, in order to ensure valedictorian status at graduation. While there will always be a few people who follow this path, that is their choice. They decide to face the extreme challenges of a schedule this rigorous, and their reward for this effort is to be ranked top in the class. Everyone can choose to put in effort on that level and reap the rewards, but that would likely mean giving up sports and other extra-curricular activities many of us enjoy in order to allow for homework and study time. Just as valedictorian’s choose to invest countless hours into schooling, other students choose to spend time practicing sports, helping in the community, or enjoying time with friends. In the end, the valedictorian gets to list their class rank, and we fall in somewhere behind that, but what we lack in class rank is made up for in other activities that are also considered by colleges.

However, if there was no class rank, we would no longer have to strive to maintain an acceptable ranking, and instead could allow our grades to slip as long as we maintain a somewhat respectable GPA. While this might allow us to improve our extracurricular resume, some of us would no longer care to maintain perfect grades because we would only be motivated to meet what we see as an acceptable GPA. This GPA, absent of a class rank to give it context, would not prove to college officials that we are well-rounded individuals prepared to take on the rigors of college. Class rank translates to so much more than just a number. For many students it is a motivation and a validation of the effort we put into our schooling. Without this motivation, we would become lost academically, and have no reason to take pride in our education.

Taking away rankings in high school will not only turn students’ focus away from academics, but it will also make us unprepared for the world after high school. As humans, for better or for worse, we like to rank everything so there are always clear winners and losers. Whether it is the Forbes Richest People or the NFL Top 100, rankings are everywhere in society, so not allowing high-schoolers to get used to them at a time when we are still learning about life will only make us woefully unprepared for taking on the real world. This distinct mental disadvantage, coupled with the loss of focus on academics, will seriously hurt our future selves. We are constantly told in Anne Arundel County that high school is a place for college and career readiness, so why would we standby as county officials remove a system that helps us gain admission to college, finance our higher education, and become prepared for modern society?

While elite private schools and even higher competitive learning atmospheres, such as the one that Urrea describes in Anne Arundel County, may need a change to protect students, most schools do not need to end class rank. Rather, class rank provides students with a much-needed motivation and assists us in getting into colleges or being prepared for our future careers. In addition, schools in Anne Arundel County do not have the pedigree of the prestigious academies that are doing away with class rank, and colleges would not look past the absence of class rank for us as they would many of these private schools. As the proposal to end class rank moves forward in our own county, we, as the students who will be affected, must make our opinions heard to a school board that has only heard the view of a representative trying to represent the county’s student body without ever experiencing the situations at schools other than her own. Class rank should be a school by school decision–it is, in fact, only a school wide ranking. Unless absolutely necessary, class rank should not be abolished due to the major role it plays in college admissions, scholarships, and even high school achievement. In order to prevent ourselves from losing access to valuable scholarship money and highly sought-after seats in college, we must make the voices of all of Anne Arundel County heard in the class rank discussion and preserve class rank.