Many of the questions we’re frequently asked concern course selection in high school. “Are some classes more impressive than others?” “How do I choose between class A and class B, given that I can’t take both?” Here are some thoughts to help families plan for next year.
Graduation requirements and admissions requirements
Is your high school preparing you for college? In all likelihood, the answer is yes. High school graduation requirements are generally the same as college admissions requirements. You can check college websites to get a sense of what they consider college readiness to mean.
Many colleges share their thoughts on high school course selection. As you will see, however, guidelines are often rather vague. Harvard lists some “recommendations,” (not requirements) which boil down to: four years of English, four years of a foreign language, two years of history, four years of math, four years of science, and good writing experience. Notice that Harvard doesn’t mention any specific courses you must take.
Yale’s website dodges the question of specific courses altogether. Instead, Yale emphasizes—in a number of different ways—the importance of challenging yourself in high school. Their site states clearly:
“Yale does not have any specific entrance requirements.”
So how much does course selection really matter, and how early should students begin thinking about it?
Come up with a plan early on
You may have heard that certain colleges don’t look at ninth grade transcripts. Most colleges weigh sophomore, junior, and senior fall grades far more heavily. So how much do the courses you take freshman year matter?
The truth is, the courses you take in ninth grade do matter, and so do the grades you get in them. The reason for this has less to do with GPA, and more to do with the profile you’re trying to build for yourself throughout high school.
The courses you take in your first year of high school have an impact on the courses that will be available to you the following year, which in turn determine your options for the year after that. If you choose all the easiest courses your freshman year, it may be difficult for you to advance to the most challenging (and interesting!) classes your school offers by the time you are a junior or a senior.
Make sure to come up with a plan as early as possible to be certain you’re fulfilling any prerequisites necessary for more challenging courses down the road.
Take advantage of the opportunities you’re given
Don’t panic if your high school doesn’t offer many AP courses. When they evaluate your application, admissions committees will take into account the opportunities you’ve had at your disposal.
The important thing is to challenge yourself. If you’re a STEM buff, but your high school offers a limited number of APs in math and science, look into the possibility of taking a class at your local community college. Remember that you can register for AP tests even if you haven’t taken the corresponding AP class in high school.
If you find yourself in a class that doesn’t feel challenging, and if for some reason you can’t take something more stimulating, ask your teacher for additional reading. Consider taking on an independent project. Don’t worry about getting extra credit: when it comes time for your teachers and guidance counselor to write your recommendations, they will remember that you are the kind of kid that goes the extra mile.
When it comes to college admissions, there is perhaps nothing more important than a proven love of learning and intellectual challenge.
Follow and focus your passion
Following your passion means choosing your courses based on your interests and skills. Don’t take a class just because you know the teacher frequently brings in cookies. Don’t take a class just because the teacher has a reputation for being an easy grader. Believe it or not, admissions committees at the colleges you apply to may be aware of that teacher’s reputation. If they are, they won’t be impressed by your easy A.
Focusing your passion means going deep into the academic subjects that mean the most to you. Plan on developing your intellectual interests during summer programs, in school clubs and in competitions, and through independent projects. Something most college websites won’t tell you is that you’re better off being a superstar in one or two subjects than simply being above average in all your classes.
One last thought
Keep in mind that your academics are only part of the picture. Take it from the folks at Harvard’s office of admissions:
“While the heart of the matter will always lie in academic promise, we prize candidates with special talents and with outstanding personal qualities; we are interested in students who excel in one or more extracurricular activities; and we seek a distinctive and diverse national and international student body.”
Make a plan now to take advantage of all the exciting opportunities available to you at school, but don’t forget the importance of everything you do outside of the classroom!