I'm only ranked in the top 20 percent of my high school class, but I have a good GPA (3.8) and ACT score (32). Will my class rank hold me back at top universities where most students were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes? I'm considering schools like Rice University and Washington University in St. Louis.
Colleges will look at your class rank in context, so whether or not it holds you back depends on how your school calculates GPA and how large and competitive your school is overall. If your high school has challenging classes, many high-achieving students, and a larger than average student population, your top 20 percent ranking might be considered more impressive than top 10 percent ranking at another high school that's smaller and less rigorous.
However, your scores and GPA are both slightly below average based on the students that have been admitted to Rice and Washington University in St. Louis in the past. Both schools have average ACT scores of 33 and average GPAs above a 4.0. Average GPA statistics are risky to compare since they usually reflect a mixture of weighted and unweighted GPAs. If your school only records unweighted GPAs, and you have a 3.8 after taking all the most difficult classes, you may be a stronger applicant than someone at another school whose weighted GPA is higher on paper.
The bottom line is that your grades and scores in the context of the opportunities provided by your high school are more relevant to colleges than your class rank. The schools you mention are reasonable options for you, but they should be placed in the reach category based on your tests scores and GPA (although, as I said, you should look into how your school calculates GPA to get a more accurate picture of the situation).