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Choose Wisely! High School Course Selection

Stephen Friedfeld, Ph.D.

What will your class schedule look like next year? And does it really matter? (Yes, it does.)

Now is the right time to be thinking about your courses for next year and subsequent years. Start with your end goal and work backwards. Do you think you’ll want to major in the arts or humanities? Architecture? Engineering or science? It’s okay if you don’t have a clue yet, but if you have some idea of your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, it could help with the planning process.

For juniors and seniors, course decisions will be a bit more concrete, as they’ll likely be finished with most required classes and can instead concentrate on electives. Freshmen and sophomores probably have fewer options for courses, but should concentrate more on rigor than on the specific classes themselves.

What does this mean?

Admissions officers want applicants to take the most challenging curriculum possible and to do well in that curriculum – there’s no point in taking all Advanced Placement (or International Baccalaureate) courses and getting C’s and D’s. Instead, students should try and balance rigor with success; that is, students should take as many challenging courses as possible and do well in these classes.

Rigor varies from school to school. In one high school, a rigorous curriculum might mean taking one AP (or IB) course as a senior. In another high school, the top-ranked students might take two AP courses in junior year and then four or five as seniors. Students applying to highly selective universities should take a curriculum that matches closely – or even exceeds – that of the other top students. Colleges will compare students’ rigor and grades to others from the same high school.

Further, colleges will be looking at the entirety of the curriculum – one course will not make or break an application. But, if a student knows he or she wants to study engineering, then she should take the most challenging math and science courses available; and if another student wants to study architecture, he or she should probably take AP Studio Art and Calculus, if offered.

In the end, work hard in your classes. Four years of strong grades in a rigorous curriculum will be the most important factor in admissions decisions.

(Stephen is the COO of AcceptU (www.AcceptU.com), a college admissions counseling program that connects applicants with former admissions officers. He has 10+ years of admissions experience at Cornell University and Princeton University. )

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