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Choosing Courses: Perils of The Maximizer

Posted on 02/19/2020, by Dr. Ellen Fithian to Parents of 7th and 8th Graders, Parents of 9th Graders, Parents of 10th Graders, Parents of 11th Graders (0 comments)

For many parents of middle-of-the-road students, choosing courses for the following year is no big deal; they're trodding a pretty familiar path toward fulfilling graduation requirements and exercising a few minor options along the way. For parents of a Maximizer, however, course selection can be a challenge.

The Maximizer is my term for a student who generally aspires to attend a highly competitive college. If her high school calculates an exact class rank, she’s eyeing one of the top spots and is determined to take as many – or more – weighted classes than her rivals.

Academic drive is laudable, but this student needs to be careful not to drive herself right off the cliff in one of the following ways.

Her reach may exceed her grasp.

In choosing courses, Maximizers operate on the principle that top colleges want the students who’ve taken the most rigorous courses available to them. That’s true - but only if the student is successful. Sadly, colleges are not wowed by an applicant who has taken on such a heavy load that she ends up getting B’s and C’s.

So how can a student – and her parents – predict how much academic rigor she can handle successfully?

Begin by reviewing how well she is managing her current course load. How many difficult courses is she carrying, and what were her first semester grades?

Next, how much study time does she need to attain those grades? If the three Advanced Placement courses she’s currently taking have her hunched over her textbooks until 2 o’clock each morning, what is the likelihood that she can successfully handle five AP courses next year?

All work and no play make Jack a dull applicant.

The assessment of whether a teen will have time to manage a potential course combination should also take into account the time he devotes to extracurricular activities. Estimate how many hours he’s currently spending and then increase that number for the following year, since he should be deepening his commitments as he progresses through high school.

Colleges that have their pick of great students tend to admit those who have also had an impact on their school or community, so from the admissions perspective it would be counterproductive for your teen to take so many tough classes that he has no time to excel at his extracurricular pursuits.

Commitment overload can be hazardous to a teen's health.

Today’s teenagers are under a lot of stress. A 2018 national survey of college freshmen by UCLA researchers revealed that in their last year of high school, 39% of students had frequently “felt overwhelmed by all that I had to do”, 34% had frequently felt anxious and 14% had frequently felt depressed.

I personally feel that the frenetic rat race that typifies modern teen life – and is exaggerated for high achievers - diminishes their quality of life and threatens their mental health. That said, there’s no way to turn back the clock to the halcyon days when bobby soxers and letter men spent their after-school hours at the sweet shop swilling egg creams. Your kids have to live in the world they were born into, and the best you can do is try to to prevent it from exacting too heavy a toll. So keep close tabs on their emotional well-being and be sure to factor that into all decisions regarding their commitments.

The End Goal: Maintaining Balance

Succeeding in the college admissions game is a lot like winning an event in Olympic gymnastics. Getting a top score is a function of both the difficulty of the routine and the quality of the execution, so attempting a double somersault dismount off the balance beam is a great idea if you’re sure you can pull it off. If not, you might do better to attempt a less challenging maneuver – and execute it perfectly.

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Posted on 02/19/2020, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments)




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