High School Course Selection Advice

by Lisa Cynamon Mayers

Former Admission Counselor Washington University in St. Louis

Spring is coming! There’s a general antsy-ness among students, especially those second semester seniors. Juniors, sophomores, and freshmen, listen up: those seniors worked hard for nearly four years and while they can’t  give up completely, they have a little more wiggle room these last few months until graduation. You, my dears, on the other hand, have a lot to focus on this spring. One of the things spring brings is the annual course selection meeting with a guidance counselor or faculty advisor. Though we would defer to your counselors in nearly every instance, there are some general tips for making the course selection process run smoothly.

1. Colleges care about the courses you take. Absolutely. 100%. No one will argue on this one. Carefully consider your course options and take the following tips into consideration as you plan your schedule. But remember, the classes you select to take are as important as the grades you receive.

2. Honors/AP/IB courses are preferable to standard college prep courses. As admission counselors we were frequently asked, “Is it better to receive an A in a college prep class or a B in an honors class?” Admission counselor humor is to answer that it’s best to get an A in the honors class. In all seriousness it’s best for a student to take the most challenging courses available. This doesn’t mean that a student needs to take every single honors or AP/IB course offered by the high school, but it does mean that a student should challenge him/herself.

3. Colleges look for consistent or increasing academic rigor. Students should plan each successive year of high school to be equally, or better yet, more challenging. Senior courses shouldn’t be a cakewalk.

4. Course selection should match or highlight academic interests. Students interested in a pre-med or engineering curriculum should take math and science every year of high school. Students interested in international business or international relations should take the same foreign language throughout high school. Admission counselors will look to see that students have the proper preparation for their intended fields of study.

5. Different high schools offer different programs of study. Sounds obvious, right? This can be a tremendous source of stress for students and parents because there is a concern that admission counselors will not recognize differences among high schools. Rest assured that at the most selective universities and the liberal arts colleges, students’ transcripts are interpreted within the context of the high school. If AP courses aren’t offered, students aren’t expected to have taken them.

6. Continuity is important. Barring extenuating circumstances, students should show continuity in course selection. For instance, if a student has taken Chinese in grades 9-11, it would be expected to see continuation of the language senior year. Yes, there could be reasons why the student would opt to cut this course from his/her schedule, but in general it is best to see continuity.

7. Colleges want to see the five core academic courses every year of high school. In general a student’s schedule should include: English, math, science, social studies or history, and the same foreign language. Every year. Of course there are exceptions to this rule but a student applying to a selective college with a senior courseload of: study hall, cooking, basketweaving, film studies, study hall, etc. won’t be a competitive applicant.

8. College academic requirements are a minimum. All of the colleges and universities have lists of what courses students must have completed in order to apply. These are the minimum requirements. And who wants to simply meet expectations. Students should strive to exceed expectations.

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