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Choosing a High School or School District To Boost College Admission Chances

I received an email from a reader this morning that wondered whether it was worth it to move to a different school district where the schools have a better reputation, in order to give his kids a boost in the college admissions process.

Here’s his question:

My answer is equivocal, in some sense.  Generally, a big move is not going to give you a big advantage.  However, it is important to investigate the quality of teaching at your kids’ schoools.  Here is my response:

The factor of high school rigor is usually factored into the equation. For example, a student in Lexington or Wayland may get an extra “brownie point” for living there, rather than in Saugus or Chelsea.  They are interested in the academic rigor of the offerings, not the “ranking” or “reputation.”  the irony is, however, that ambitious (and wealthy) parents all flock to the same towns, hoping to give their kids an edge in college admissions. But if 14 kids from Lexington apply to Harvard each year, only 1 or 2 (or sometimes 0) will get in.  However, a really amazing kid from Chelsea?  Since he’s a stand-out, he has a good chance, too, despite his lack of town-based “brownie points.”

If you are really thinking of moving to a place where your kid has the best chance of getting into college, I have three recommendations:  Wyoming, North Dakota, and Mississippi.  Top flight colleges are always seeking qualified applicants from those states.  But if you live in Woburn and are thinking of moving (at great expense) to Dover, I’d tell you to focus, instead, on providing great opportunities for your kids, undergirding their extracurriculars, promoting their academic interests and talents, and being involved in their education.  The “edge” you might get from moving is slight, and certainly would not be enough to make it or break it in admissions at the most selective colleges.

However, I have one caveat.  You do need to consider the quality of teaching at the school your kids attend.  This especially important when it comes to the AP and IB classes.  I have seen kids earn straight As in AP courses at some schools (or in some subjects) and yet fail the AP exams.  This is silly.  The tests are nationally normed, and a grade of A ought to correspond to the rigor of the test.  Experienced AP teachers will grade classwork in this way:  if they expect that the work would earn a perfect 5 on the AP test, then the kid is awarded an A in the class.  But if  teacher is over-the-moon about a kid’s classwork, and then that same kid flunks the exam…well, the teacher isn’t aware of the level of proficiency required, and isn’t calibrating his or her expectations to the national norm.  Some teachers in my own kids’ school will sometimes even give out a conservative grade in the AP course, but then change the grade if the student aces the AP exam.  Thus a kid who received a B in the course but a 5 on the exam can ask to have the course grade boosted to the A.  So the bottom line:  be on the lookout for grade inflation, especially when it comes to these high-stakes, nationally normed exams.  Just because the school labels a course “Advanced Placement” doesn’t necessarily mean their kids are passing the exams with flying colors.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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  1. Choosing, or moving to a good school district makes a lot of sense! After all, it’s no coincidence that home prices in good school districts are usually higher.

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