Selecting High School Courses


This is the time when students need to think about courses for the next academic year. Registration at your school will likely take place at the end of January (or early February). Course selection is more important than you may expect: Strength in curriculum has consistently been the #2 consideration for college admissions officers (with #1 being grades in college prep courses, again relating back to course selection).

Colleges want students who have challenged themselves and who have succeeded in that challenge. I am often asked “is it better to get a ‘B’ in an honors course or an ‘A’ in a regular course?” Well, the answer really is: Get an ‘A’ in the honors course! That’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but is somewhat serious. Here are my tips for course selection, for all high school levels:

1. AP vs. Honors vs. Regular Classes – Students should academically challenge themselves as much as possible. They must also maintain high grades in difficult classes. A simple way to make this determination is if the student is getting an A in a course, s/he should bump up a level the next year. Colleges don’t want to see students coasting with A’s in basic level courses. Maybe that means a slightly lower grade (an A-, perhaps a B). But, admissions officers will appreciate the student pushing him/herself academically.

2. Which AP Classes? – This question comes up in a variety of subjects for a bunch of different classes. In science, for example, AP Chemistry is notorious for being an incredibly difficult course. Without an A in a previous honors level chemistry class, AP Chemistry will be extremely challenging. This debate over which class in a subject comes up in social studies, math, and English. It is important to consider the student’s strengths and what colleges are looking for (many would prefer AP Calculus to AP Statistics, for example). Another consideration is the teacher, reputation, and other students in the class – this differs at each high school. A corollary to this is question leads us to number three:

3. How Many AP Classes? – There really is no magic number. The most selective schools (think Ivy League) are looking for at least two AP courses junior year and four AP courses senior year. But even schools like the University of Wisconsin-Madison want to see how a student performs in an AP class before it sends out an admissions letter. That means that for early applications (REA, SCEA, EA, EDI, EDII, or Priority deadlines), a student should have a junior year AP class under her belt (with a solid grade!).

4. Four Years of Each Subject – Don’t think that senior year is a time to drop all of your core subject classes in favor of elective or arts classes. The more selective schools want to see four years in math, science, social studies (history), English, AND foreign language. And, if you’ve finished those four years before your senior year, move on to AP and/or college classes.

5. Electives – Electives are a great time to explore different subject areas. But, if you have a particular interest, you should take increasingly difficult classes in that subject. For example, a student who enjoys ceramics should continue the ceramics sequence in his school. This will show colleges dedication to an interest and that the student has developed some skills in that area.

Of course, each student has a different path to college and decisions have to be made on an individual level. But, keep in mind, that all schools are looking for students who have challenged themselves and succeeded, at a level appropriate for that school.