How To Choose High School Courses
According to the most recent addition of State of College Admissions, 62.1% of colleges view high school curriculum with “considerable importance.” Only 7.3% say the strength of the curriculum is of “no importance.” Other top spots include grades in college prep courses and grades in all courses. So why does curriculum matter? While you may want to choose your college based on sports teams or the proximity to the beach, ultimately, you are going to college to continue your academic journey. You have four more years of academics ahead, and your future college wants to know you can handle the rigor. Choose your high school courses wisely.
Start planning early
Ideally, this conversation should start in middle school, choosing thoughtful courses at each grade level. When I talk to a student early on in high school, I ask them what classes they want to take by graduation. Then, we map them out. Obviously, you will have limited options earlier since many advanced science and math courses require a particular sequence; maybe you want to make sure that you can incorporate Orchestra each year or complete the Marketing pathway. Identify your priorities and see where everything else fits in. Students are often surprised at just how much can fit in throughout their 4 years.
If you are at a school where your teachers make recommendations, remember, the individual teachers recommend for THEIR subject area, not for your holistic health. I’ve seen students with 4 AP Social Studies courses on their recommendation requests when they still need four other subject areas. Your chemistry teacher doesn’t know that you’ve already been recommended for AP Calculus BC, AP English Lang, AP US History, and AP Spanish, so if they tell you that you should double up and take AP Physics and AP Biology, take it with a grain of salt. Have a conversation with them (and other students) to see what the workload really would be like, and then consider your entire schedule (plus outside-of-school commitments). The goal is to choose challenging, yet appropriate, courses in your plan.
Challenging, yet appropriate, courses
Think about your current workload. How much homework do you have each night? How long do you spend studying every week? Do you have time for extracurricular activities and/or hobbies? What about your sleep schedule? Imagine what your obligations will be for the next year. Are you planning to be president of a club, or will you be getting a part-time job? Do you have to take care of your younger sister every night while your mom is at work? How much time will these additional responsibilities take? If you feel like your workload is not challenging, and your extra duties won’t be too much more, consider adding a rigorous course to your schedule. Maybe you really enjoy math, and you want to step up to AP Calculus or a Dual Enrollment course. You may want to pursue an extra science course like AP Environmental. If you feel like your current workload is too much, or your additional duties will put you over the top, consider taking a step down in one of your subject areas. Hate reading? AP English Literature may not be the best class for you. Colleges don’t want to see all A’s in on-level courses since that shows you aren’t challenging yourself enough, but they also don’t want to see a bunch of C’s in AP courses since that could indicate you may not be ready for college-level work. Strike a balance, and play into your strengths, but don’t be afraid to take a little risk. Then, make adjustments if needed.
Consider the future
Take advantage of your elective opportunities to explore different careers. If you are interested in architecture, take an AutoCAD course. Considering healthcare? See if your school offers an anatomy course. You may need specific requirements for admissions. For example, public colleges in California require that you take a fine arts course for graduation, and Computer Science is often recommended for students interested in STEM. If you are considering Engineering, be sure to have Physics and Calculus (if offered at your school). Check out the colleges’ websites or ask an admissions counselor for their recommendations. Additionally, iff you have an idea of your major, you can look at those requirements for the schools of interest to see the general requirements. If there’s an opportunity for Dual Enrollment or AP credits to count, you could knock some of them out while still in high school. Many students I know take AP Government or Political Science at a local college since it is often a required core course in college.
Senior year matters
So often, I work with students who are accelerating their curriculum. They take high school courses while still in middle school and college courses in high school. By senior year, they hit a wall and have either taken all the classes they wanted or have no motivation to take the even more challenging courses ahead of them because they feel burned out. They want to take their graduation requirements (usually a semester of Economics and one English course) and have “fluff” for the rest of their school day. Some schools will allow for a reduced schedule, and I’ve seen students who only take 2 courses. While that is fine for graduation, selective colleges are going to want to see more. They typically want to see all 5 academic subject areas (English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and World Language) throughout high school, regardless of middle school credits. Students argue with me because “if I’m applying early action, the school won’t even see my grades.”. While that’s true, they will still see your schedule. During your senior year, a lack of rigor could indicate that you aren’t as serious about your studies anymore. You could be an admission risk since your foundation may not be as strong as the student who took an additional math course.
Wondering about the differences between Advanced Placement (AP) and Dual Enrollment (DE) courses? Check out this blog post for more information on two programs that could help you save time (and money) in college.