How NOT to approach choosing next year’s high school courses.
It comes around like clockwork: each year at this time, we guide freshmen, sophomores, and juniors through high school course selection. The principal point we make each season is that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between a student’s high school curriculum and potential college choices.
Our advice to college-bound students nearly always starts with this: the most important factor in college admission is your high school transcript. Your high school counselor will send your school’s profile along with an official copy of your transcript to every college to which you apply. The profile describes your school in terms of things like courses offered, average SAT, ACT, and AP/IB/AICE scores, and college acceptances for previous classes. When you apply to college, admissions officers will, among other tasks, compare the kinds of courses you will have completed to the range of courses available at your school. What colleges are looking for is RIGOR!
Here’s another way to put it: did the student push the envelop by completing challenging, rigorous courses? Did the student complete a less challenging curriculum with few advanced classes? Depending on the colleges to which you apply, these considerations can be paramount. No mystery. We’ve been saying it for decades. Your grade of B in an AP course will carry more weight than a grade of A in a regular course.
We’d like to provide you, then, with food for thought when meeting with your guidance counselor to line up your courses for next year. The number of places that colleges fills with incoming freshmen is being outpaced by the increasing number of students who apply – especially to the 100 or so “brand name” colleges and universities among our country’s thousands. Consider this:
- If you have a chance, take the next-level course in a field of study. Colleges really appreciate students who take a second year of a specific science, or who complete the next level math course that’s more than a recapitulation of algebra and geometry. Such choices demonstrate a willingness to face challenges while increasing insight and understanding in an academic area. After all is said and done, this demonstration of willingness to accept intellectual challenge is what college is all about. Plan ahead in high school. The course catalog is relatively limited compared to a college’s, so choosing your path shouldn’t be rocket science if you keep the goal in mind: presenting a record of strong academic scholarship.
- OK, but when is enough, enough? Don’t kill yourself! Take courses you can comfortably balance with the rest of your life. For example, if math is not your thing, then an advanced physics course may not be suitable. With programs like AICE, AP, and IB available in many schools, a student can usually find ample opportunity to take advanced courses in areas that will be stimulating – and where the student has a better chance of performing well.
- Specialize, or Diversify? This is an easy one. If you’ve taken every advanced speech and theater course available, be certain to take science, math, history, and foreign language, too. Schools like to see breadth even more than they like to see depth, because a wide-ranging list of courses taken in high school will indicate broader intellectual development. Such a quality is vital when applying to the more highly competitive schools, but it’s a positive quality for any student applying to any school. Be cross-disciplinary!
- Use Logic When Changing your Mind. We mean, if you decide to exchange one course for another as you plan next year’s curriculum, make sure the exchange you contemplate is meaningful from the standpoint of that key word, rigor. Only the most extenuating circumstances might justify dropping an IB or AP course and replacing it with a standard course. So, switching from AP Human Geography to AP Government is fine; dropping IB Music III for a non-IB elective class is not. Think high school transcript. Consider the overall picture that your transcript will paint for admissions. You’re not applying to graduate school (yet), so put your best foot forward – with a fine-tuned array of subjects across the disciplines.
- Minimum requirements for graduation. Good, you have it covered, you’re going to graduate. But do minimum requirements mean automatic consideration at many colleges? No! The requirements for high school graduation are NOT the same as the requirements for college admission. What kind of student image will you project if you just go for the minimum? They’re watching you….
Students often ask us if an “A” in a course always looks better than a B+ in some other course. Should I take an easier course that pretty much guarantees an ‘A’ or should I go for the advanced course and probably get a lower grade? To repeat, a grade of B in an AP course will carry more weight than a grade of A in a regular or Honors course. While there are no hard and fast rules, we still offer these guidelines:
- Choose courses that make sense to you, not to your mom and dad. Look for intellectual challenge. Expand your horizons in a reasonable way.
- In your own mind, “sign on” to do the work. A half-baked attitude will lead to flimsy results.
- Look down the road: check out the profile of accepted students on each college’s website. Most colleges are pretty up-front about their expectations.
Remember the school profile we mentioned early on? Not every school has a dozen or more AP courses. Not every high school offers a comprehensive AICE or IB curriculum. So what’s a student to do when faced with the competition? Go for broke within the choices available ― and look to outside resources for more challenging courses when you’re applying to selective colleges. Ask us about ways to augment your high school classes with additional AP courses outside of school or with summer programs on college campuses.