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College Prep 101: Selecting High School Courses

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By Christine, IvyWise Premier College Admissions Counselor

The most important document in a college application, as I tell all my students, is the transcript. Admissions committees are keen on applicants who have challenged themselves and excelled academically throughout high school, not just in junior or senior year when they think it “counts.” Given the transcript’s importance, students should thoughtfully consider what courses they should take each year and plan ahead for subsequent years.

What Colleges are Looking At

College admissions officers evaluate both course rigor and grades from all four years, so everything from 9th grade on counts, making it crucial that students start preparing for college in high school early on. For the most selective colleges, they are seeking students who have taken the toughest courses available to them in all five core academic subjects – math, history or social sciences, science, English, and language during all four years of high school. That said, colleges do consider trajectory, too. For students who have had a slower start, taking increasingly difficult courses with improved grades could help make a stronger application.

What Courses to Take

Ninth and 10th grade students, especially, should take time to discuss course selection and planning with their counselors to ensure the strongest foundation. In general, I recommend taking four years of English, history/social studies, science, math, and a foreign language, even if high schools have fewer requirements. This “general rule of thumb” also applies regardless of a student’s academic interest and strength. STEM students should take four years of English and history, and humanities students should take four years of science and math courses. Importantly, all students should strive to study a language deeply. For specific subjects, there are other considerations as well. For math, students should aim to complete pre-calculus by senior year. For those considering selective colleges and universities, competition of calculus is necessary. For science, students should take at least one year each of the three lab sciences – biology, chemistry, and physics.

Why Rigor Matters

For students seeking admission to the most selective colleges and universities, building a four-year curriculum comprised of the most rigorous courses available — e.g., honor, AP, advanced topic (AT), IB courses — is crucial. Here, it is important to note that context matters, too. A student’s transcript and four-year curriculum rigor are evaluated in the context of what is available at the high school. It wouldn’t be possible for a student to take a full slate of AP courses by senior year if a school offers only a couple of AP courses.

Beyond taking the most rigorous courses available, students can also consider selecting courses that would demonstrate their academic interest and strength. For example, a STEM student may double up on science courses during sophomore or junior year. Electives — from AP Art to Statistics to Psychology — are another terrific way to demonstrate interests and strengths. Even with electives, I recommend taking the more substantive ones, like accounting versus yoga, unless specific courses are required by the high school. That said, the focus for admissions committees tends to be on the core five academic subjects. For students who have access to local college courses, either as recognized credits by the high school or documented on the college’s separate transcript, that can be a terrific way to show rigor and interest as well.

Strike a Balance With Your Course Selection

Above all when selecting courses, balance is key. Students should appropriately challenge, but not overwhelm themselves — especially when their grades would be adversely impacted. I’m often asked: “What’s better, the easy A or the hard B?” In an ideal world, a student would take the harder course and earn an A, but that is often not the reality. Understanding that every student is different, I would advise to carefully calibrate each year’s courses to maximize overall course rigor and academic performance. This could mean taking a regular-level lab science course while pursuing the highest-level English and history courses for a humanities student, or vice versa for a STEM student. Ultimately, maintaining a healthy balance with all aspects of a student’s life is the key to enduring success.

Course selection is a big part of students’ college prep, and you don’t have to go into it blindly. At IvyWise, our team of expert counselors works with students to help them build a challenging, yet appropriate, course schedule for the upcoming school year in order to ensure that they are exploring their interests while laying the groundwork for more challenging coursework later on. For more information on how IvyWise can help you craft a balanced and challenging class schedule, contact us today.

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