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STANFORD -- It's a common dilemma for college-bound high school students: Should they take the easier math course and get an A? Or should they take calculus and risk getting a B or even a C on their transcripts?

If they seek admission to highly selective schools such as Stanford University, admissions officers say, they should go ahead and take the more challenging course.

"As we travel around the country, we find there's a lot of confusion among students and parents about the value that selective schools place on rigorous academic courses," said James Montoya, dean of undergraduate admissions at Stanford University.

"We do not depend heavily on grade point averages to give us a sense of student accomplishment," he stressed. "As we view each file individually, we also take into consideration many other factors, including the depth and breadth of a student's academic preparation."

Agreed Jon Reider, associate director of admissions: "We want to assure students that if they have taken the most rigorous program in their high school, that will be noticed," he said. "We are interested in the kind of kids who try to get As in honors courses."

The main problem with relying heavily on grade point averages, admissions experts say, is that there are more than 25,000 high schools in the United States and they vary wildly in how they present information about their students.

Some schools provide detailed class profiles showing exactly where the applicant stands in comparison with his or her peers, while other schools don't rank their students at all.

Grading policies also can be radically different, depending on the school's philosophy.

Some high schools parcel out As sparingly, only for truly exceptional work, while others automatically inflate the grade point averages of all their honors students, so that those getting Bs in tough classes actually end up with As on their transcripts. It is not uncommon for applicants today to have GPAs approaching 5.0 on a 4.0 scale.

Adding to the difficulty are applicants from foreign schools where the grading and ranking systems may be completely different.

Sometimes it's even hard for admissions staffers to tell what courses a student has taken. According to Stanford freshman admissions director John Bunnell, some high school transcripts just list abbreviations instead of course names - often necessitating a long-distance phone call to the school.

"AMEX" on one student's transcript turned out to be a morning physical education class; "Women on the Move" was an aerobics class. Another student took "BTW" - usually interpreted as Behind the Wheel, a driver's education course. But it was listed under history. "It turned out to be 'Between the Wars,' " Bunnell said wryly.

To cut through the confusion, Stanford recalculates every applicant's grade point average on a 0 to 4.0 scale for core subjects taken in 10th/11th (combined) and 12th grades.

English, science, foreign language, history/social studies and mathematics are included in the academic evaluation; courses such as driver's education, physical education, band and shop are not.

Then, Stanford asks the applicant's high school counselors to rank the difficulty of the student's course load compared to others in the class.

"We note carefully which courses are accelerated, honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate," Montoya said. "A strong performance in (these classes) indicates a student's ability and desire to meet academic challenges."

And, contrary to what some laid-back high school seniors believe, 12th-grade academic programs and performance really do count.

"Two kids could have the same calculated grade point average and be evaluated very, very differently by us because one's grades are going down and one's grades are going up," Reider said. "There's no question: We would want the student who's improving or remaining at a high level."

Confusing though they are, transcripts are still the single most important credential for admission to a selective university such as Stanford. But they are certainly not the only factor.

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions also carefully considers Scholastic Aptitude Test scores (though very high scores do not by themselves guarantee admission to Stanford), talent in athletics or the arts, leadership in school and community activities, essays, and references from teachers and others who know them well.

The goal in all of this, Reider said, "is to learn something about the nature of students' minds, their risk-taking, intelligence and curiosity."

And the more coherent, sensible information a high school can provide about its applicants, the better.

-tmj/grade advice-


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