I’ve started a dozen versions of this article. In each, I try to balance the variations when students’ wants conflict with what they should take to be best prepared for college (and most competitive in the admissions process.)
Why so many drafts?
There isn’t one simple answer to course selection questions. When I meet a family for an academic consultation to work on academic planning issues, I ask a lot of questions and get feedback on that student’s specific needs, talents, weaknesses, and goals.
But this article is general– one size fits all. This isn’t a problem from the college admissions planning side; what they want is predictable. The challenge comes as I consider all of the questions I get from students (and parents) seeking exceptions. “I know you say to take four years, but what if…”
What you find here is my general advice. I know it isn’t always popular, but I know it works.
How to select high school courses
1. Make a Four-Year Plan
You don’t need anything fancy, but I like to make the options visual, so I use a blank sheet of paper divided into four columns (one for each year of high school) and a number of rows to equal the number of courses a student can take per year. So my daughter’s plan has seven rows because there are seven class periods per day at her school.
I like to keep my chart organized, so I assign the first four rows to the core academic classes: English, math, history, and science. The next row is for foreign language. This leaves the remains rows, two in my daughter’s case, for all other classes.
Here’s what the plan looks like today:
If your student is already in high school, fill in the courses completed already. I keep the chart handy and fill in courses as I discuss the remaining suggestions.
2. Four Years of English, Math, History, and Science Are a Must
Some schools, districts, or states will have different graduation requirements. For the college-bound student, four years of these core courses are essential. That means a student will take English, math, history, and science every year in high school, even if he or she started taking high-school level courses in junior high (Algebra I for example.)
This is non-negotiable for me. (And why my advice is sometime unpopular.)
Of course, the specific courses are up for discussion. A student who struggles in math may decide senior year calculus is too hard and take another math class instead. Some students will elect to take advanced, honors, or AP level classes in certain subjects. The specifics will vary, but all students should plan for four years in these subjects.
Do you HAVE to?
Do you want to be academically well prepared for college? Do you want to risk the potential red flag to admissions officers when they see you have taken the easy way out and skipped that senior year course? I’m not saying four years is a requirement at all colleges, but you should know that it is expected by most and anything less can work against a student at some colleges.
3. Four Years of Foreign Language Are Strongly Encouraged
This is a topic where I adjust my answer depending on the client. A strong student who is potentially considering top schools should take four years of the same language.
In my family four years of the same language was non-negotiable. (My daughter chose to take AP Spanish V next year because she has enjoyed all of her Spanish classes and thinks Spanish literature will be interesting.)
My general rule is that three years of the same language is essential, four recommended. However, there are some cases where I have given different advice to clients. I take into consideration the following:
Learning differences that impact language learning
Current grades in foreign language
Overall academic profile
What a student would like to take instead
A student who has struggled through the required years of language and would want to replace year four with another academic course can. But the student who has made A’s and B’s and just “doesn’t want to” because he or she heard the class “is hard” should take the extra year.
Yes, colleges know third and fourth year courses are harder which is why it is good thing to do. It is also good because you will gain additional language skills, which are in high demand in many employment opportunities.
4. Plan for Additional Requirements
Every school has different requirements. If you attend a private religious school, you may need to plan for four years of Theology or Bible classes. My daughter’s school requires students to take a year of P.E. and a year of an arts course.
Figure out what additional requirements you need to meet and add them to your four-year plan.
For most students these are not the fun courses they want to take. I don’t think it is necessary to “get them out of the way” early, but you do need to plan for them.
My daughter’s schedule has been full with academic courses, Spanish, tennis, and debate, so she has not taken her required arts credit in 9th or 10th grade. We have penciled art in for 12th grade when she has an opening in her schedule because she will have completed Spanish 5, the highest level language class offered at her school.
5. Fill In Gaps With Electives (“Wants”)
Electives are the courses designed to allow students to test out interests, develop skills, and discover strengths beyond the core academic classes. Electives aren’t meant to replace academic classes; they are intended to supplement them.
Consider courses that pair with a student’s extracurricular interests: band, journalism, theater, debate, sports, etc.
Explore courses that relate to potential career interests: computer science, psychology, extra science classes for the student considering pre-med, etc.
Look for opportunities to develop leadership, communication, or interpersonal skills: JROTC, FFA, independent research, PALS, newspaper, etc.
For me, electives fill in the remaining openings in a student’s schedule. If you have done the first four steps correctly, you will find almost no time left for all the interesting electives your student wants to take.
This is the reality many families don’t like to face: there will always be more interesting electives than available time in the schedule.
6. Consider Course Content & Appropriate Level of Rigor
Content and rigor can help you decide between different options. Examples illustrate this better than any description.
A student has completed biology, chemistry, and physics and needs to select a science course for his senior year. Should he take anatomy, AP Biology, or AP Environmental Science? All three meet the standard in #2 above (four years of core courses), so how can he decide?
Let’s add in that this young man is strong in the sciences, has been taking challenging academic courses on an advanced level in the past, and is considering medical school for the future. His interest in medicine would lead me to focus on either anatomy or AP Biology– both courses that will contribute to his future goals. While anatomy sounds perfectly suited to a potential pre-med student, I still need to consider appropriate rigor. A strong academic student may get more out of the AP class, making it my first choice for his senior year science.
A student thinks she will study engineering in college and is trying to balance her interest in playing soccer and working on the student newspaper with the “Principles of Engineering” course sequence she sees in her high school’s course catalog. Does she need to give up either soccer or newspaper to make room for these engineering electives? What would serve her best in college? What do colleges want to see for admission?
The first step is to recognize that colleges (and their engineering programs) want core academic courses before electives. So four years of challenging math and science courses are the first step. Choose calculus over statistics; take AP / IB or honors when appropriate. Consider an extra year of science or computer science as an elective.
Next, if this student in interested in participating in soccer and newspaper (and presumably will take those courses during the school day), I would encourage her to continue. There is value in these activities: teamwork, planning, practice, leadership; meeting deadlines, working with others, accepting constructive criticism, time management, and so much more.
This is why colleges like to see students commit time to activities outside of the classroom. Yes, sometime students have more interests than time, but if possible, I’d encourage this student to remain with newspaper and soccer as long as they continue to be meaningful activities for her.
Finally, don’t feel compelled to take every course with “engineering” in the title. This student will not be limiting her future opportunities if she never takes these elective courses. And not all courses with “engineering” in the name will lead her towards her goal of a four-year degree in the field.
For example, at my daughter’s school many of the vocational classes include “engineering” in the title. These are interesting classes, but for admission to a university engineering program, higher-level math and science courses will outweigh vocational electives. (I’m not saying these are bad courses, but they aren’t worth this student dropping out of soccer or newspaper to take them.)
Following these basic principals will give you a competitive high school plan.
If you are still struggling or want more personalized advice, I offer individual 90-minute consultations for $225. I will answer your questions; n o need to commit to ongoing services. For more information visit my consultation page.
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