By Robin, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
Enter any conversation about college admissions, and you will inevitably hear the word “transcript.” This all-important document presents an academic narrative of the applicant, showcasing the grades and courses the student has taken throughout their high school career.
When college admissions officers read a student’s application, they not only review what grades the student has earned but also the rigor of the student’s course selection. Suffice to say that while grades are paramount, the strength of a student’s curriculum plays an important role in the overall academic evaluation of the application as well.
Why Advanced Courses Matter
When reviewing the transcript, college admissions officers are looking to see if the applicant has opted to take the most challenging courses available at that student’s high school. High schools in the US and abroad offer a variety of rigorous courses, and those courses are designated as such by different monikers: honors, AP, advanced topics, seminars, IB, etc.
Admissions officers consider the student’s course selection in the context of what type of advanced curriculum is available at the student’s high school. When a student applies to college, their high school counselor submits a secondary school report that includes an official copy of the student’s transcript along with the high school profile.
When I reviewed applications, I always consulted the high school profile as it provided me with detailed information about the academic curriculum available at that particular high school. This document ensures that admissions officers can review and, more importantly, understand, the transcript within the context of the high school that the student attends. The profile also informs the admissions officer of any particular nuances in the school’s curriculum and grading system.
At some high schools, the highest level of courses available might be “Honors” courses, whereas, at another high school, students might have the option to take AP courses. Admissions officers do not have a preference for what type of advanced classes the applicant is taking, but what matters is that the student is taking the most rigorous courses available.
62% of colleges view a student’s “strength of curriculum” with “considerable importance” when reviewing applications, according to NACAC’s 2019 State of College Admissions Report. By choosing to take challenging courses, the student is indicating to the admissions officer that they do not shy away from academic challenges. The course content in these advanced courses is often modeled on that of college courses, so from the admissions officer’s perspective, high school students who have opted to challenge themselves in this way are students who will be prepared for the academic rigor they will encounter in their college classes.
To this day, I am convinced that the only reason I was successful in my freshman college writing seminar was due to the fact that I opted to take AP English during my junior and senior year of high school (and it was the only AP course offered at my high school at that time!). It prepared me for the college-level writing that my professors expected from me.
Advanced Courses and Test-Optional Policies
In light of the numerous test-optional policies in place at many US universities, the information on a student’s transcript becomes even more important. Some students might find that standardized tests do not present an accurate depiction of their true academic ability, so the grades they’ve earned in advanced courses are a way to highlight their academic strengths. With standardized test scores no longer being a required data point used in the academic evaluation of a student’s application at many universities, the academic information presented on the transcript is essential in helping the admissions officers determine if that student is an academic match for that university. Grades earned in courses are only one part of the student’s academic narrative; the strength of the student’s curriculum is also closely scrutinized.
How to Select Advanced Courses
Students need to thoughtfully consider how to incorporate rigorous courses into their overall curriculum. Every academic year documented on a student’s high school transcript matters in the college application review process. Students in 9th and 10th grade should engage in backward planning, meaning they should start with what courses they hope to take by their senior year and then work back from there, checking to see what course pre-requisites must be met in order for them to be able to enroll in those advanced courses.
As a general rule of thumb, I always advise students to take courses in the five academic core subjects (English, math, social science/history, science, world language) throughout their four years of high school. For many students, it might not be feasible or even desirable to take the highest level course in all five of those core subjects. As students progress through high school and start to hone in on their primary academic areas of interest, they might decide to take advanced-level courses in those subjects instead. Advanced-level courses will be more challenging both in terms of time commitment and course content, which means that a student might experience a slight dip in their grades. This is why students must strike a balance when planning their courses. For example, a student interested in engineering might want to enroll in the highest level math and physics classes at their high school and opt for the standard-level English class.
Students should aim to challenge themselves – but not to the point where their well-being suffers. I recommend that students meet with their school counselors, speak with their families, talk with their teachers, and engage in their own self-reflection when selecting courses and determine if they are potentially trying to take on too much in terms of their course load.
Students also need to examine their motivation behind taking certain advanced classes. Engaging in honest self-reflection and consulting with your advisors will ensure that you are selecting a curriculum that is challenging, exciting, and beneficial to your success.
Selecting a challenging high school curriculum that meets a student’s academic ability does not have to be an overwhelming process. At IvyWise, our team of expert counselors helps students thoughtfully plan out an academic trajectory that aligns with the students’ interests and goals and creates a foundation for more challenging courses as they progress through high school.