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Updated 6/1/2022

Few things are as important to college admission officers as a student’s choice of courses. A 2018 survey of member colleges by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) revealed that “strength of curriculum” was assigned considerable importance (the highest ranking) by 62% of colleges surveyed and moderate importance by another 22%. 

High school courses are the fabric of a student’s academic preparation, and their rigor determines whether that fabric is strong or threadbare. While there are no hard and fast rules about which courses will wow admission committees or best prepare a student for college success, here are some general rules of thumb.

Solid academic courses trump electives.

While there’s nothing wrong with a student adding a fun elective to a full academic schedule, substituting a course in Amazing Abs or Vegetable Carving for a fourth year of science will make a poor impression on the admissions committee at a competitive college.

Math – don’t stop ‘til you get enough. 

Many math missteps in high school can contribute to a student being unprepared for college level math, among them taking too few math courses, taking math courses lacking rigor, or not taking math in the senior year. To increase the likelihood that your son will be successful in college math, make a strong case for continuing math through senior year and aiming to end with precalulus or calculus.

Foreign language: Pay now or pay later.

Colleges like applicants who have studied a foreign language to the point of fluency, which generally requires four or five years of high school study. If your daughter hates Spanish, you may have a tough time trying to persuade her to go beyond the three years of language study that many colleges list as one of their minimum course recommendations. Here are a couple of arguments to try.

First, if the college he aspires to attend is selective, it’s generally not a good idea to aim for minimum standards. Second, graduation requirements at many colleges include achieving proficiency in a foreign language, which may require two to four semesters of study in college. However, students can frequently place out of the requirement by having taken a certain number of years of language study in high school, or by attaining qualifying scores on an Advanced Placement test. So taking a fourth or fifth year of language in high school, along with an SAT Subject test or AP test, might very well save a student several semesters of foreign language study in college – where it’s significantly more demanding.

Advanced Courses: Who’s Counting?

Colleges are – literally. Many colleges count the number of honors, advanced, AP, IB, and dual enrollment courses a student has taken, though this doesn’t mean that the applicant with the most advanced courses necessarily wins. A standard mantra of campus information sessions is that colleges evaluate each student’s curricular rigor in the context of his high school. Admission officers know that the availability of advanced courses differs markedly across American high schools, and they swear that if a student has only taken two AP courses because that’s all that was offered by his school, he won’t be compared unfavorably to a student who attended a more affluent school and took fifteen AP courses.

To be honest, I’m a little skeptical about this claim.  I’m sure that admission committees make allowances for students from educationally impoverished schools, but I can’t help thinking that fair or not, the student who has excelled in six AP courses her junior year will seem a more impressive candidate than the one who only had the opportunity to take one. So if your daughter’s high school doesn’t offer many advanced courses, consider looking elsewhere for them. See if she can enroll in an introductory course at a nearby college, take a college course over the summer, or avail herself of one of the many options available for distance learning.

Does this mean you should encourage her to take every advanced course offered by her school? Not necessarily. Colleges will also be looking at her grades in those courses as well as her extracurricular activities, so if you think that taking six AP courses as a junior will result in her getting C’s, having to study so much that she has no time to do anything else, or just plain being miserable, don’t send her down that pathway. In a nutshell, encourage your teen to enroll in as many advanced courses as she can do well in without being unduly stressed.

Next article:  Grades, GPA, and Class Rank.


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