The Ultimate Guide to Valedictorian vs Salutatorian: Do Colleges Actually Care?

High school graduation season is an exciting time for all, and, along with “Pomp and Circumstance” blasting out of the speakers, you might also hear talk of valedictorians and salutatorians. 

These terms sound super fancy, but will being named either have an impact your college applications, positively or negatively? 

In this blog, I’ll help you distinguish the pomp of these decorative titles from the tangible circumstances that are actually relevant to colleges. 

More importantly, we’ll take a look at the contributing factors that are known to impact your college application: GPA and class rank

Get comfortable, friends, because it’s time for the ultimate showdown: valedictorian vs. salutatorian. 

What Is Valedictorian?

I’m a Classics major, so allow me to indulge in the etymology for a sec. “Valedictorian” derives from the Latin vale, “goodbye,” plus dicere, “to say.” At graduation ceremonies, typically he valedictorian says “goodbye,” or gives the closing remarks. 

These two speech-giving honors are usually granted to someone on the basis of class rank and/or GPA, but schools use different systems to name valedictorians For example, they might be given to the top two students in the graduating class, or to multiple students with the same GPA or ranking, or it might not be used at all. 

What Is Salutatorian 

“Salutatorian” derives from the Latin salve, meaning “hello.” As you might have gathered, it’s the opposite of Valedictorian. So while the valedictorian will provide the closing remarks, the salutatorian will say “hello,” or give the introductory remarks. 

As with valedictorians, schools use different systems to name salutatorians,so it can be difficult to predict the average GPA of salutatorians or valedictorians. Having said that, both are often very high and usually hover around or above 4.0. 

So now you know what valedictorian and salutatorian mean literally, what do these terms mean for you as a college applicant?

Benefits of Being Valedictorian or Salutatorian 

Here’s the question you’ve been waiting for: Do colleges care if you’re a valedictorian or salutatorian?

In short: No.

Sorry to burst your bubble, folks. Valedictorians and salutatorians are usually named at the end of senior year, when final grades–and admissions decisions–have already been determined. These honors are not going to be listed on your college applications, and they are not considered by admissions officers.

Colleges know that being named valedictorian or salutatorian doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be successful.    However, as I mentioned above, valedictorian and salutatorian honors are usually based on GPA and class rank—two factors colleges do care about. 

Valedictorian and salutatorian: GPA 

Colleges receive thousands of applications from students all over the world, from all sorts of secondary schools. 

Plainly, it would be unfair to evaluate the attainments of a student from a rural, under-resourced school against that of a student from a well-resourced boarding school. 

What’s more, different schools calculate GPA in different ways, using different scales and giving different weights to Honors and AP/IB classes.

Thus, to avoid unfair comparisons, colleges measure the academic performance of an applicant within the individual context of their school. But colleges don’t just look at the GPA number; they also take into account the rigor of applicants’ classes alongside their performance in those classes. 

For example, even with a higher unweighted GPA, a 4.0 student who took no AP courses could be considered a less competitive applicant than a 3.7 student at the same school with an AP-heavy course load.

As a result, the GPA required to be selected as Valedictorian or Salutatorian at your school might not have even come close at another school, or vice versa. Ultimately, it would be unfair for the intangible, yet undeniably fancy, title to impact your college application.

Valedictorian and Salutatorian: Class Rank 

With class rank, the same logic applies. 

Class rank is another tool colleges use to understand an applicant’s academic performance within the context of their school - not beyond. 

Additionally, not all schools rank students, and those that do typically use GPAs to determine class standings. 

On top of all this confusion, you have to consider whether high schools use unweighted or weighted GPAs. Unweighted GPA ranks don’t account for course rigor. So in the example mentioned above, the 4.0 student would rank higher than the 3.7 student, regardless of his class difficulty, or lack thereof. 

Weighted GPA ranks do take into account course rigor; for example, an AP course has a 5.0 weight, while a non-AP course has a 4.0 weight. Again, looking at the case above, if the GPAs were weighted, the student with an AP-heavy course load would rank higher than the student taking no AP classes.

Again, this makes it difficult for admissions officers to determine whether the fancy titles of Valedictorian and Salutatorian can be assessed comparatively and fairly across the thousands of other applicants. 

Valedictorian vs Salutatorian: Final Thoughts 

To sum it all up for you, the criteria that often decide valedictorians and salutatorians–GPA and class rank–are important to colleges, but you don’t need the titles themselves in order to be recognized for your stellar grades and hard work.

Being named valedictorian or salutatorian is still an incredible honor, and even if you can’t put the title on your college applications, you can still be proud of it, and you should flaunt it. It’s a nice feather in your (graduation) cap that you can note on resumes, and in scholarship and job applications down the line.

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