Your Guide to High School Course Selection

As the end of May rolls around and the academic year comes to a close, many students are faced with the challenge of selecting which classes they would like to take for the following academic year. Whether its comments from teachers, conversations with guidance counselor, suggestions from a family member or friend, students will often feel pressured and influenced, even unconsciously, about their course selection. Let’s discuss what courses you should take and why it’s important.

Easy Course Selection

A common thought is to enroll in the “easiest” courseload—no APs or honors classes for example—so that you can maximize the GPA. In other words, students and families will often focus on the number, the 3.8, 2.7, 2.0, without asking questions that highlight the context of that students and his or her school. Course selection is relevant in the admissions process because it gives admissions officers context behind your GPA. Let’s take an example from last week’s article. Admissions officers are reviewing your academic data to assess whether you have the ability to successfully complete the curriculum at their university (statistically speaking, if a student cannot handle the courseload at a university, he or she is more likely to drop out, and universities like to avoid this at all costs). On the surface, it may seem that applicant A is more qualified than applicant B. But now, let’s take a look at the context.

We find out that applicant A has taken the most challenging classes and is within the top 5% of his or her class. We find out that applicant B has actually taken the least challenging classes and is not within the top 30% of his class. Now, the situation looks different and applicant A academically speaking looks better than applicant B. A university learns about the courses offered at your school and whether or not a high school participates in class rank from something called a high school profile (your high school will automatically submit this to the college so you don’t have to worry about it). The point I’m making is that course selection is one (important) data point that provides context behind your GPA number.

A Challenging Course Load

So what classes should I take? The harsh reality for students seriously crafting their application for the more competitive universities is that most applicants will have enrolled in the most challenging courseload their high school has to offer. It’s important to note that the most challenging courseload at one high school might consist of 13 AP classes whereas the most challenging courseload at another high school may only consist of honors classes and no APs. If your school doesn’t offer “a ton of APs,” don’t worry about it. Just focus on maxing out the courses that you have access to.

For the students who are not necessarily tailoring their application for a specific subset of schools, my recommendation is that you take the most challenging classes in subject areas you’re interested in and take less challenging classes in subject areas you’re less interested in. If you’re a science and math person, for example, you may enroll in AP Biology and AP Calculus while taking Honors English and a non-Honors U.S. History. The reason I recommend students to select courses in this way is that the challenging classes will take more energy and time than less challenging classes, and you are more likely to invest this time and energy into things you care about. Doing this will yield a higher GPA because your effort will allow you to succeed in the challenging classes and the less challenging classes will be just that for you, less challenging. You’ll be happier and you’ll do well. The sweet spot.

College Class Requirements

Lastly, be conscious of any requirements the college you’re looking at has. Let’s say you’re an English person but the college you’re looking to apply to requires you to take 4 years of Math. This does not mean that you have to take the most challenging math classes like AP Calculus BC, but you DO have to enroll in a math class otherwise you will not be considered for admission since that is a non-negotiable requirement. Most colleges do not have miscellaneous requirements so following the normal path students at your high school take will generally be acceptable. That being said, my recommendation is to check the website of the schools you’d like to apply to just to reassure yourself.

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