Honest (Sometimes Unpopular) Course Selection Advice

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
  • College aspirations
  • 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.

Senario A

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.

Senario B

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.


Study Skills for Better Grades with Less Stress

Study Skills Better Grade Less Stress

In the process of advising teens and families on how to best prepare for college admission, I often suggest a student work to improve his or her grades. Sometimes better grades simply require getting serious or devoting a little more time and effort. However, in many cases students don’t know what to do. That’s where study skills enter the picture.

I’m familiar with a variety of strategies and organizational techniques, but I’m not an expert. But I do work with someone who specializes in these areas—Gretchen Wegner. The greatest compliment I can pay my podcast co-host Gretchen is that she helps me learn new study strategies, even if I’m initially doubtful.

I’m a “just the facts” person when it comes to studying. I was always good at school and test taking was a skill that came easily, so I didn’t want to waste time on “creative” study solutions. I could read the chapter, complete the assignment, and get top grades without too much effort. Gretchen has spent her career working with students who need another approach.

If you have ever struggled in a subject or studied only to find it wasn’t enough, you know that some of the “old school” approaches to education aren’t sufficient. Gretchen combines the latest research in brain science and learning with an understanding of teens to present strategies that really work.

Here are some of my favorites. (Click on the titles to access that episode on The College Prep Podcast website.)


080: The Right & Wrong Ways to Study with Flashcards

I’m a big fan of flashcards— specifically the paper ones you can shuffle and sort which have some functionality that apps like Quizlet can’t replace. When Gretchen introduced me to some of the strategies listed in this episode, I was skeptical. (I’m not a personal fan of “fun” activities; I’d rather just study the cards.) Why should we add in “silly” activities to regular study? Because it works. Well. Since this podcast aired a year ago, I have encouraged my students, and even my own daughter, to incorporate these techniques.

In Gretchen’s academic coaching practice, she notices students mindlessly use flashcards. This makes studying take longer and results in less effective learning.

In this interactive podcast, Gretchen walks listeners step by step through her favorite technique for using flashcards to turn your brain ALL the way on. Come with a few blank index cards (or a torn sheet of paper) and follow along. You’ll discover:

  • The less effective ways students use flashcards
  • How to use categories and grouping to turn your brain to “on” while you learn
  • How to infuse silliness while still learning effectively, and
  • Ways to invite family and friend to play with flashcards, in order to make info stick longer

If you’d like more practice with this creative technique, or want to learn 10+ additional techniques for taking the boredom out of studying, check out the Anti-Boring Approach to Powerful Studying.


143: How to Read a 400 Page Book in Under Two Hours

One of the most time consuming activities for students is reading! And most students don’t effectively read most assignments. (Eyes moving over the pages won’t help if the information never enters their brains.)

In this episode discover simple tips for reading faster and more effectively than you ever thought possible. Learn:

  • The section of the book readers usually skip (but shouldn’t)
  • How to skim for the structure of the information so you remember the main points
  • How to find secret clues inside the chapter that will allow you to quickly identify main ideas
  • How to use your hand while you read to help you read faster
  • How to annotate a nonfiction text (it’s not what your teacher taught you!)


130: How to Get Homework Started Painlessly with the Pomodoro Method

As a parent I’m pretty fortunate when it comes to the task of refereeing homework. My fourth grader comes home and immediately starts his work and my high schooler may grumble some days, but has always been self-motivated. I know not all parents are as lucky.

Initiating homework is a hard task for students! Especially students with executive function challenges (planning, organization, self-monitoring, prioritization, task initialization, etc.)

Tune in to this episode to learn about why the Pomodoro technique is such a good antidote to getting work started, and how to set yourself up for success with this technique, including:

  • What the Pomodoro Technique is, and why it’s so helpful for students
  • 4 tips to get your work space set up so that you make the most of the Pomodoro Technique
  • How to adjust it for your unique work style
  • How to take breaks that refresh you, so that you’re ready to come back for more

This is another example of one of Gretchen’s techniques I doubted when I first heard of it, but that I have started using at home.


Here are some other great episodes to help you build your study skills arsenal:

014: How to Study So Well You are 100% Ready for Every Test

128: How to Help Teens Get Control of Their Schedules

029: How Parents Can Raise Teens Who Manage Time Well with Leslie Josel

010: How to Take Powerful Notes That Make Key Points Stick

100: The Key to Inspiring Students to Study Strategically

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Key Standardized Tests You May Need This Spring

SAT ACT test taking


Now is a good time to plan all standardized testing for the remainder of the school year. Most families with juniors know it is time to take (or retake) either the SAT or ACT. But there are some other testing issues that may not be so obvious.

Here are some considerations based on your student’s grade level:

Freshman (9th Grade)

Freshman typically have few requirements outside of classroom tests and state-level exams. However, there are some exceptions (and opportunities to get ahead.)

PSAT – If your student took the PSAT in October 2016, you can review scores online at CollegeBoard.org. You may need to create a student login; be sure to save this information because over the next four years you will need it. Your school’s guidance counseling department can help with the information you may need to create a College Board account.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – AP Exams are designed to test students’ knowledge of the curriculum covered in Advanced Placement courses, high school classes that are designed to teach the equivalent of a first-year college course in the particular subject. AP Exams are hard and most high school freshman struggle to develop the analytical and writing skills necessary to do well on these tests. If your student is taking an AP class (not pre-AP, but actual AP), you should hear more from the teacher or guidance counselor about signing up for and taking the AP Exam. This year’s AP exam schedule is available online.

SAT Subject Tests – Very few freshman will find themselves in a situation where they should consider taking an SAT Subject Test this spring, but it is possible. Freshman who are taking AP U.S. History or AP World History should consider taking the Subject Test in May or June. Subject Tests are appropriate for underclassmen when they are taking an advanced course in a subject they will not continue with the following year.

For example, a student taking advanced Algebra would NOT take the math Subject Test because he or she will take another math class in 10th grade. But a 9th grader who is finishing AP World History and will take a different type of history next year may want to take the SAT Subject Test this spring when his knowledge of world history is at its zenith. It is rare for freshman to take other advanced classes that correlate to Subject Tests, but occasionally I will meet one taking AP Biology, Physics, Chemistry, or language (Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, etc.)

To learn more about the SAT Subject Tests, you can read “SAT Subject Tests: Should You Take Them and When?


Sophomores (10th Grade)

Like freshman, most sophomores are still a little early to worry about testing related to college admission, but there are some important exceptions.

PSAT – Like freshman, sophomores who took the PSAT in October should login to their College Board accounts and see their results. Because they will take the SAT as juniors, sophomores should spend additional time reviewing strengths and weaknesses and developing a plan for improvement.

Sophomore PSAT scores are key in identifying potential National Merit Scholarship candidates in time to prepare for next October’s exam. If you have a 10th grader scoring in the 90th percentile or above, you may want to give serious consideration to whether he or she can score well enough next fall to earn recognition and, if so, what type of study plan you should follow to pursue this opportunity. For more about the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships, read this article.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. I strongly recommend all student enrolled in an AP class take the AP Exam. You do not need to send scores to colleges for admissions consideration, but some universities will accept strong AP results in place of the SAT or ACT. (See NYU’s testing policy as an example.)

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussion of these tests under freshman year. More sophomores may be in a position to take Subject Test exams this spring. As I write this I’m thinking that I need to sign my own daughter up for the May test date. The week before the May 6 SAT administration (SAT Subject Tests are given on the same Saturdays as the SAT.) she will take the AP U.S. History and AP Spanish Language exams. Why not take those Subject Tests while the material is fresh in her mind!


Juniors (11th Grade)

Junior year is full of admissions testing. The sooner you can finish with standardized exams, the sooner you can turn all of your attention to the college search and application process.

SAT / ACT – Every college or university that requires standardized tests for admission will accept either the SAT or ACT—with no preference given to either one. Many juniors have already taken the ACT and/or SAT this school year, but most students take these exams more than once because colleges look at a student’s best score. If your junior hasn’t taken the ACT or SAT or isn’t satisfied with his or her scores, make plans to complete your testing soon.

PSAT – Hopefully you have already accessed your results online and started working on areas of weakness. If your student scored extremely well on the PSAT, you will want to keep your eye out for National Merit communication. Typically National Merit doesn’t release semi-finalist information until the start of a student’s senior year, so be patient.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. Juniors really should be taking AP exams for all of their AP courses. Yes, the tests are hard. No, not everyone will earn a score which qualifies for college credit in the future. But the process of studying for a tough, comprehensive exam is great practice for college.

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussions above, but this is the time to complete all the Subject Tests you may need for fall. This means it is time to take Literature, Mathematics (highest level you can), and any other key subjects or those that may be required by colleges on your list. Students can take three Subject Tests on any test date, but keep in mind you cannot take the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests on the same day. So many juniors will take Subject Tests in May and retake the SAT in June.

Spring is a busy time for everyone. We all have end of the year activities so it is vital to plan ahead to avoid schedule conflicts.





After You’re Accepted– How to Choose the Right College


We are in the throes of making the final decision about which college to attend, and I’m wondering if you have any suggestions or could point me to some good resources. My daughter is a talented singer and focused on several liberal arts colleges with strong music programs or music conservatories, but doesn’t want to major in music. She is now grappling with the question of whether it’s better to be a “big fish in a little pond” at a school with a music department and opportunities, but not known for music, versus one of the schools known for music. (Her top choices are Lawrence, St. Olaf, Denison, and Knox) If you have any advice or could point me to some good resources to help her as she decides, I would really appreciate it.

First, congratulations! You and your daughter are in the enviable position of having to choose from a number of great options. Making that final decision is more of an art than a science, but I’ll share what I tell my clients.

No Bad Choices       

It may help to start out by recognizing that there are no bad or wrong choices. I understand many families feel as if they have to make “the right choice” and that belief only makes the process more stressful.

Your family did a lot of hard work in the past year as you limited the college list to a group of schools all included because they are good choices. Yes, different schools will provide different college experiences, but it is a lot like trying to decide whether to go to Hawaii or London for your next vacation. They are different, but both would be excellent experiences.

Honestly, Lawrence, St. Olaf, Denison, and Knox are all great schools. I can’t say one is better than the rest because it really depends on what you and your daughter are looking for. So there really is no bad school in this bunch.

Chart Key Data

I’ll admit I’m a right-brained spreadsheet nerd; I’ll do this step in Excel. Whether you create an electronic spreadsheet or a colorful chart on construction paper with stickers, you need to put key information in one place so you can accurately compare and contrast options.

I like to start with the numbers. Some of these facts may be more significant to your decision than others. Here’s my starter list:

  • School name, location
  • Type of location (college town, small town, big city) & any key location benefits (access to internships, arts scene, etc.)
  • Miles from home
  • How you plan to get to/from college on breaks & estimated cost of a round-trip
  • Approximate time (door to door) from home to campus or vice versa
  • Total students on campus & total undergraduates on campus
  • Intended major & minor (if applicable)
  • Plan for freshman year housing
  • Your best guess for housing after first year (on campus, off campus—be specific)

Then I encourage everyone to chart the financial aspect. Unless the cost of college is chump change, list it out. Make the cost of college part of your decision just as you would consider cost when purchasing a car, house, or vacation. You can use your financial statement from the college or the net price calculator from each school’s website.

  • Tuition
  • Room & board
  • Fees
  • Travel to school (minimum of twice a year)
  • Other expected expenses
  • TOTAL of all the above
  • Scholarships (first year, one time awards)
  • Scholarships & grants (these will be awarded all four years)
  • Work study
  • Loans (you can separate into student and parent)
  • Estimated payment per year

Pros & Cons of Each

Next we get into the details of each school. You may want to pull out notes made on your campus visit(s) because your on-site reactions to the campus and people are valuable.

Start by listing all the benefits of a particular school. (Just focus on benefits at this stage. DO NOT give in to the temptation to pencil in corresponding weaknesses at other schools as you go along.)

  1. Include academic benefits: particular majors or classes, unique courses, specific professors or programs, capstone options, J-term possibilities, and any reactions you had visiting with students or professors on campus.

In this case, what will your daughter major in if she doesn’t want music? Would she want to double major or minor in music if that’s a realistic possibility? What parts of the academic music program does she want to experience? Are there other classes, programs, courses of study, or general academic approaches she likes at this school?

  1. Include extracurricular or co-curricular benefits: teams or companies (include level of participation and your expected roll as a freshman), possible clubs or organizations of interest, required internships and other internship possibilities. The key here is to picture yourself on campus and describe in as much detail as possible your role in activities outside the classroom. You may have to dig to find answers.

Does your daughter hope to use her musical talent in an extracurricular activity? How likely is she to be able to get a part / position as a freshman? As a non-music major? Will a majority of music opportunities outside the classroom be reserved for music majors? Will it be harder for her to participate as a non-major? What about other activities or clubs not related to music?

  1. Include campus-living and social benefits: living-learning communities, off-campus fun, social organizations, campus recreation options, special dorms or campus housing perks. Here is where you list all benefits that are not academic or extracurricular. Some of these benefits might relate to the people and “feel” you got when on campus; that’s ok. You want a college where other students share your ideas of fun and will encourage and help you reach your goals.

What else did your daughter like about each school? Will living arrangements offer special opportunities? How does she picture herself spending her free time? Don’t overlook little things like good weather because small things experienced on a daily basis can be big. (Ask anyone who had to give up his or her regular coffee if little things matter!)

  1. Include feelings, prestige, and gut reactions. This is where its fine to say you just like the vibe on campus or that everyone else will be impressed with your choice. You can also say you feel safe being close to home (or that you are so glad to be far away!). Maybe you feel this school will do more to help you set up internships or engage in hands-on research. It might be that it is simply easier to talk to an actual person if you have a question.

Don’t discount your gut reaction.

How will your daughter feel at this particular school? How much will the school’s reputation for music matter if it is not her major? Does she feel confident at the idea of pursuing options at this school?

  1. Include practical considerations: cost, distance from home, ability to use AP, IB, or dual credit hours.

Once you have all the benefits listed, go back and list the weaknesses for each college. It has been my experience that the list of shortcomings is smaller if you do this as a separate step. Thinking of one school at a time, what do you wish this school had? What are the potential flaws? Are any of these problems enough to take a school off your list?

Narrow Your List

With all the information written down, you can begin eliminating schools from the list. Remember, these aren’t bad choices. Often these schools just don’t have as many benefits as some of the others on the list.

I like to approach this step by asking the student to eliminate his or her “lowest” option then asking everyone how it feels. If mom and dad can live with it, we take the choice off the list and continue. I like to give the student a lot of decision-making ability at this point, but I also allow for a parent “save” so mom and dad can keep their best option in the mix.

Ask Big Questions  

When you are down to the top two or three choices, it may be time to pause and ask some big questions. If you haven’t visited all of the remaining schools, I’d strongly encourage you to do so. Then spend some time as a family discussing these issues and any other questions you think need to be addressed.

  1. Is there a significant financial difference among these schools? If yes, spend some time with related questions. Is College X really worth $80,000 in loans? Or College Z costs $13,000 per year less; could we use that to get some experiences you think College Z lacks (for example take a year abroad with the money saved might make up for some other shortcomings.)
  1. Where will you feel most happy and encouraged to do your best work? Don’t overlook the intimidation that students often feel in highly competitive programs and don’t underestimate the value of feeling as if you belong academically and socially.
  1. Where do you want to be in five years? How will each school help you reach your goals? If you are planning to attend medical, law, or graduate school, will the cost of your undergraduate degree limit your ability to pay for future studies? If you haven’t asked, check on the post-graduation employment rate or graduate program admission rates.
  1. Which school will best serve the real you?

I usually explain this by admitting my own secret dream of being a modern day Martha Stewart where I grown my own organic vegetables, make beautiful floral arrangements, and have an eye for home décor. The reality is that I hate getting my hands dirty and working in the yard in the heat of the summer is my idea of torture. Add to that my complete lack of style and the real me has no business pursuing those Martha Stewart dreams.

Sometimes we approach college with the same disconnect from reality. Think about how you, with your personality, interests, and style of learning, will do at this particular institution.

Yes, College Y has a lot of opportunities, but are you the type of student who will seek them out and make them happen? Or would you be better off at College X where a lot of these opportunities are either built into class requirements (internships, research) or are so much of the school’s culture that everyone else will be doing them too. Sure, it sounds great to take the train into the city to see shows on the weekend, but if you are a stay-around-the-house type of person, then this benefit may not apply to you.

Make The Choice

After all your analysis and discussion, make a choice.

Then sit on that information for two or three days. (Which means your decision has to be made before the notification deadline.)

How do you feel? Hopefully, you can start to relax and settle into the good news. If after a couple days no one feels intense regret, congratulations, you have made your choice.

P. S. 

Keep in mind, there are only good choices, but if your initial choice doesn’t work out as planned, you always have options. Students can and do transfer schools. I left The George Washington University after my sophomore year and transferred to Rice University. If you find your initial college isn’t a good fit, you can change.