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When choosing classes, there’s no one answer



For the Monitor
Sunday, April 15, 2018

The line forming outside my high school counseling office and the backlog in my email inbox suggest that it is course selection season, quite possibly my least favorite time of the year. Underclass students – of all grade levels – want me, as the college counselor, to “bless” their proposed course program. While I share the “truth as I know it” from two decades working in the admission profession, undoubtedly they leave my office frustrated that either I will not make their decision for them or I am unable to give the answer they are mining for. Here are a few of the questions I repeatedly hear:

“Is it better to take the regular class and get an A or choose the advanced class and risk a B?”

“I want to drop my language class but I also want to be admitted to a highly selective school. Will they care?”

“Should my son take three or four AP courses to be competitive for admission?”

“Can I double up in English and history and drop math and science senior year?”

“My daughter is a recruited athlete, so she doesn’t need to take advanced classes, right?”

“The college’s admission website says only two years of high school history/social studies required, so can I stop after U.S. History junior year?”

Undeniably you are wondering what the responses are, and you are likely to be as disappointed as the inquirers. As with so much in college admission, the answer is, “it depends.” If a student will be applying to engineering programs, a course program lacking in rigorous calculus or physics is a red flag in admission review. Likewise, applicants to most technical institutes who decide to double up in math or science at the expense of a fourth year of language will not raise as much concern as if they were applying to traditional liberal arts programs. There are, however some more universal truths that worth considering:

Everything in context: Colleges review a student’s academic program through the lens of what is being offered at their high school. Many secondary schools are moving away from the AP curriculum, preferring to provide their own unique advanced courses. Colleges and universities are supportive of the curricular decisions and pathways that high schools develop and will assess applicants in light of the programs available. Deb Shaver, dean of admission at Smith College debunks the myth that “if you attend a school that doesn’t offer AP classes you’re at a disadvantage.” She counters, “not true, we look at each applicant in the context of the high school and what is offered at that particular high school.”

Challenge by choice: Admission offices do not expect applicants to take every single AP, honors or advanced class that is offered at their high school. What they are looking for is intentional challenge in a student’s approach to learning. Straight A’s without rigor in course load suggests a lack of engagement or eagerness to take intellectual risks, characteristics that colleges are seeking. Likewise, a student who simply grinds through a crushing academic load without space for excitement and purpose will present as such in their application – a clear case of where “more can be less.”

Know thy audience: A student’s course program should be informed by their aspirations. Likely a ninth- or 10th-grader will not have a sense for what lies ahead, which is why it is important to have an inclusive schedule that provides a strong foundation. The same generally holds true for junior and seniors — many colleges warn against “specializing” in high school. Students are well advised, however, to familiarize themselves with the expectations of colleges they hope to apply to. Often colleges list the minimum requirements for admission on their website even though the most competitive applicants with far exceed those expectations.

In the spirit of not being shot as the messenger, I reached out to colleagues in college admissions and here is some of the guidance they offered:

“We want to see students continue to take challenging courses – math, science, English, social science and a language. Some students also manage to schedule that sixth or seventh subject – an extra language, science, or math. Avoid the tendency to coast through senior year by avoiding the subjects you are less enthused by,” said Beverly Morse, associate dean of admissions at Kenyon College.

“It’s not just the level or rigor of classes you take that matters, but also the selections you make in given subject areas. Though there can be some exceptions, we are usually looking for four years of all the core subject areas. Things like taking calculus after precalculus or taking Spanish 4 after Spanish 3 (what we call the progression of a curriculum) really do matter,” said Owen Bligh, associate dean of admissions at Providence College.

“We ask, ‘What have the students done with what’s available to them at their particular school?’ We get applications from over 3,000 schools around the world and have seen every conceivable combination of curriculum, grading and weighting. It’s not the GPA that matters. It’s what’s behind the GPA that is important,” said Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University.

“Continue to take all five major subject areas each year, and increase your rigor as appropriate. The most competitive college applicants’ course programs are inclusive of English, math, history, foreign language and laboratory science in all grades, 9-12, with the student challenging themselves appropriately,” said Chris Gruber, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College.

“The most common course selection mistake that can be a barrier to admission is believing that foreign language isn’t as important as other areas,” Matt Cohen, senior associate director of admissions at Skidmore College.

“Select courses that are appropriate to your ability, not because they look good. I am concerned when a student takes a lighter load in senior year without providing a thoughtful explanation. Getting into college is easy, staying there and being academically successful is much harder. Senior year courseload/workload should prepare for academic success,” said Catherine McDonald Davenport, dean of admissions at Dickinson College.

“Colleges look for rigor, but they also look for intentional choices. Was there a clear rationale for dropping Spanish after two years? Did a student seek another avenue of approach, which gave better set them up for success? Or were these courses dropped simply because the student was not interested? Our selection process, as competitive as it is, relies on finding students who have chosen to continually put their best foot forward, not just in grades, but in course selection as well,” said Kevin Dyer, assistant dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College.

“Selective colleges put a lot of weight (a lot) on applicants’ curricular choices, so not taking a class each year from what I call “the big five” can be a deal breaker: English, math, science, foreign language, and social sciences,” said Jonathan Webster, associate dean of admission at Washington and Lee University.

“The core academics courses are the building blocks for all majors in college. Even if you think taking a physics class as a future art major might be a waste of time, you’d be surprised how much it may be useful in college or better yet, if you change your major to something in the sciences! You never know,” said Paul Krsiak, senior associate director of admissions at Quinnipiac University.

While these may seem redundant, a clear theme emerges. It is a “matter of course” – the natural expectation of most colleges – that high school preparation should be broad, sustained and appropriately rigorous. In closing, when attempting to balance a course program that prepares you well for admission to college and honors your strengths and interests, consider these words from the director of admission at an Ivy League institution who preferred to comment off the record:

“It’s good to bend, but not break. In other words, it is wise to stretch yourself but not so much that one overdoes it and becomes overwhelmed. The point of course rigor is to prepare for a smooth transition to college and to prepare for more advanced coursework in college – not to use one’s course selections as a means of being admitted to the most selective college possible. I think stretching is good preparation for a productive college experience. A father whose daughter was not admitted recently asked me about her challenging high school experience, “what was it all for?” asked this father who saw his daughter’s high school experience through the narrow lens of the college admission process, rather than through the broader lens of preparation for college and life. She is someone who is incredibly bright, accomplished and promising. She will do great things in college and beyond. She is very well prepared for what lies ahead. Her father had lost sight of the value of her high school experience, outside of a desired college admission outcome.”