Valedictorian, Salutatorian & Class Rank: Why They Matter for College Admissions

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If you’ve ever attended a graduation, you’ve probably heard a valedictorian speech (and maybe a salutatorian speech, too). And you’ve most likely heard of class rank.

But what exactly is class rank, and what’s a good one? How is your class rank calculated? Do colleges actually care? Why?

In this guide, we’ve got the answers to all of these questions—and more! Read on to learn everything you need to know about class rank and its importance for your future.

What Is Class Rank?

Basically, class rank compares your Grade Point Average (GPA) to the GPA of the other students in your grade.

If there are 800 students in your junior class and you’re ranked 40, that means your GPA is higher than 760 of your classmates’, and only 39 of your classmates have a GPA that’s higher than yours.

Your school may also report your percentile: whether you are in the top 5 percent, top 10 percent, top 25 percent, and so on. If you’re in the top 10 percent, your GPA is higher than the GPA of 90 percent of your classmates.

How Is Class Rank Determined?

Class rank is recalculated at the end of each grading period, and it’s not finalized until the end of your senior year. Schools may calculate your class rank using either your unweighted GPA or your weighted GPA.

What’s the difference?

Unweighted GPA is calculated on a 0-4 scale, and the difficulty of your classes is not considered. On the other hand, weighted GPA is typically calculated on a 0-5 scale. Extra points are awarded for honors and AP classes. Generally, honors classes are worth an extra 0.5 points, while AP classes are worth one additional point.

If you earn an “A” in a regular class, you’ll get four points toward your grade point average. But if it’s an honors class, you’ll earn 4.5 points. And if it’s an AP class, you’ll get a full five points for an “A.”

Here’s what that means for you:

  • If your school calculates class rank using your weighted GPA, you’ll need to choose rigorous classes all four years in order to be at the top of your class. When weighted GPA is used, it’s not just about making good grades; it’s about making good grades in the most challenging courses available at your school.
  • However, if your school calculates class rank using unweighted GPA, your rank won’t be impacted by the rigor of your classes. Straight A’s in all regular classes will be considered equal to straight A’s in AP and honors courses.
  • Keep in mind that regardless of how your school calculates your rank, colleges want you to take challenging classes. Even if the rigor of your schedule isn’t a factor in calculating your class rank, it will be a factor during the college admissions process.

What Is a Valedictorian?

The valedictorian is the student who graduates with the highest GPA in the grade level. In the case of a tie, some schools name multiple valedictorians. At other schools, ties are broken based on the number of AP courses students have taken during their high school careers.

Generally, valedictorians deliver the valediction, meaning they make a speech to close the graduation ceremony.

What Is a Salutatorian?

The salutatorian is ranked second in the class, right after the valedictorian. Salutatorians deliver the salutation, or the opening speech of the graduation ceremony.

Some schools also use terms like summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude to designate high-achieving students. These designations may be based on a particular GPA or on class rank percentile. For instance, summa cum laude students may have to be in the top 5 percent, magna cum laude students may be in the top 10 percent, and cum laude students will fall in the top 25 percent.

  • Valedictorian, salutatorian, and designations like summa cum laude won’t make it onto your college applications. These honors won’t be official until the very end of your senior year, long after colleges have already made their final decisions.

Still, these distinctions are a valuable addition to your resume. They can help you qualify for certain internships and scholarships. For some merit-based scholarships, a particular class rank or high achievement (like valedictorian) will automatically qualify you to earn money.

Do Colleges Really Care About Class Rank?

The short answer is yes. Your class rank allows colleges to easily evaluate your GPA in comparison to other students from your school.

This is important because with grade inflation, different grading scales, and varying degrees of rigor, it’s difficult to fairly and accurately compare a student’s academic performance to the performance of students from other schools.

Class rank helps the admissions team evaluate you in the context of your environment.

  • Additionally, a high class rank reflects a high GPA and, typically, a high level of rigor in your courses, both important factors for colleges and universities.

In some states and at some particular schools, students can earn automatic admission based on class rank. The Texas university system, for instance, grants automatic admission to students who fall in the top 10 percent of their class. Other Texas schools admit any student in the top twenty-five percent.

And at the University of Texas-Austin, the 7 Percent Rule allows any student in the top seven percent of their class automatic admission. (However, this doesn’t guarantee admission to a particular college within the university.)

What’s a Good Class Rank?

The answer to this question depends on what colleges or universities you’re interested in attending. At the majority of top colleges, such as Ivy League schools, 90 percent or more of accepted students are ranked in the top 10 percent of their class.

Most students admitted to Top 30 schools are ranked in the top 20 percent of their graduating class, and so on down the line.

The bottom line is this:

  • The more prestigious and competitive the college or university, the higher your class rank will need to be in order to be considered “good.”

Of course, class rank is only one of the many factors colleges consider when reviewing your application. Don’t let a mediocre class rank discourage you from applying to a school you’re interested in. A high class rank can boost your chances, but an average one won’t disqualify you from consideration.

What If My School Doesn’t Rank?

In recent years, schools across the country have stopped ranking students. The reasoning is that schools want students to focus on learning and achieving their own personal best, rather than on competing with their classmates.

They also don’t want students to overload themselves with AP courses in a race to the top, ultimately leaving these students stressed and exhausted. Some also believe that—given discrepancies in rigor and grading scales—class rank is not a direct measure of student achievement.

But if your school doesn’t rank, colleges won’t hold this against you. They understand that this is beyond your control. Keep in mind, however, that the admissions committee will still find ways to compare you to other students at your school.

Tips for Achieving a High Class Rank

Class rank is directly linked to your GPA, so it’s obvious that you’ll need good grades in order to achieve a high class rank.

Here are some other tips to help you climb to the top of the rankings:

  • Challenge yourself. At many schools, the difficulty of your courses impacts your class rank. This means you’ll need to take challenging classes for all four years of high school in order to surpass other talented students.
  • Prioritize. Understand the grading system in each of your classes. Usually, this is explained in the syllabus your teacher distributes at the beginning of the school year. If assignments count for very little, while exams are weighted as 80% of your grade, then prioritize tests. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your assignments, but it does mean concentrating the majority of your time and energy on preparing for exams. Similarly, if your teacher grades homework on participation, don’t spend hours stressing over getting every answer correct.
  • Work hard. Participate in class, do your homework, and study for your exams. We understand the temptation to be lazy, but don’t sell yourself short by neglecting your work. Colleges don’t know what you’re capable of and can only evaluate you based on your GPA, class rank, etc., so put your best foot forward.
  • Limit distraction and procrastination. Along the same lines, try not to procrastinate. In the end, you’ll only stress yourself out more. Make checklists or keep a calendar, and find satisfaction in checking off the tasks you’ve completed. It may help to limit distractions by using productivity apps, turning off your cell phone, or putting your phone in another room.
  • Ask for help. If you’re struggling in a class, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Remember that your teacher has many students and may not recognize that you need help unless you ask for it. Ask questions as needed, and consider finding a tutor if you need individualized attention.
  • Don’t get discouraged. Try not to concentrate too much on class rank and comparing yourself to others. Instead, focus on achieving the highest grades you possibly can and continuously improving. If you do this, an improved class ranking will naturally follow. When you make mistakes or struggle, don’t be too hard on yourself. Think about what you can do differently to get a different result, and consider it a helpful lesson learned.

Conclusion: Valedictorian, Salutatorian, and Class Rank

Your class rank is determined based on your GPA. Your school may calculate class rank using either your unweighted or your weighted GPA. Alternatively, your school might not calculate class rank at all. If that’s the case, don’t worry—colleges won’t count it against you.

If your school does calculate class rank, however, colleges will consider it when evaluating your application. Class rankings help colleges judge your achievements and abilities in the context of the school you attended (and in comparison to other students who attended the same school). Your class rank can also help you qualify for internships and scholarships.

Still, don’t obsess over your class rank or allow yourself to feel inferior to others. Class rank is just one of many, many factors that colleges consider. Simply take challenging classes, work hard, and do your best, and a solid class rank will fall into place.

And if you’re interested in gaining an edge in college admissions, enroll in our college essay boot camp.