I find myself saying a lot of the same things:
- Take the more challenging course if you are able.
- Colleges look at your transcript and will see your grades and classes together, so make them good.
- Use the few electives you have to try new things or move deeper into something you enjoy.
For Most Students Course Selection Should Be Simple
Let me stress—SHOULD. No matter where you live or what school your child attends, high school schedules are built around core courses and graduation requirements.
There are some universal truths about high school course selection:
- A majority of classes come from core subjects: English, math, history, science, and foreign language.
- Your school or district will have a preferred sequence for these core courses. Some are obvious—I, II, III, then IV. Others are less intuitive such as World History before U.S. History (or vice versa, depending on where you live). You need to find out what your school wants.
- Everyone has requirements. Colleges know this. Your years of theology, PE, arts, technology, and health are “must dos.” Sorry if they don’t speak to your talents or passions.
- Once students finish taking core classes and required courses, there are very few openings for true electives. Enjoy these choices.
There Are Exceptions
First, I stand by my usual advice that college bound students should take four years of the five core courses: English, math, science, history, and foreign language. This is solid advice and puts students on an academic path that will pave the way for success in college without raising any red flags in the admissions process.
But there are exceptions.
Not all students have the same goals. Not all students will apply to challenging or selective universities. Not all students can successfully manage the most challenging academic schedule in high school.
Here are the common exceptions I’ve discussed with clients:
I. Making an Academic Trade
This exception typically applies to the bright student who is talented, but won’t be applying to the most competitive colleges and universities (think Stanford, Duke, Princeton, Rice, etc.) and has already satisfied the graduation requirements in a subject are in which he or she struggles to keep up. These students can “trade” the extra year of struggle for an “equally academic” alternative.
Example: fourth year of history is traded for AP Statistics to be taken in addition to Calculus.
Example: fourth year German traded for an extra science or history course.
Keep in mind, the real go-getter would take both, so this exception is a compromise, but it is better than dropping the extra core course and taking an easy class or off period.
II. Getting Off a Sinking Ship
Taking four years of challenging core courses doesn’t work for everyone. A student who is working to his or her capacity and can’t keep up needs a schedule change.
Example: Getting out of advanced/honors level courses and taking the regular alternatives.
Example: Opting to stop taking foreign language after barely passing French II and satisfying the graduation requirement for languages.
Note, I called this the “sinking ship” exception. Parents, you know when your kid is drowning in schoolwork and the quality of life at your home has deteriorated. If the ship is sinking, you need to make a change. This is different from the kid who simply “doesn’t want to work that hard” or the one who wants to follow her friends to the fun classes.
III. Following Established Goals
This exception is for the student who REALLY knows what he or she wants in a college. This one is tough for me because I’ve seen too many serious, committed students change their minds senior year. But in my personal consulting practice, I acknowledge this as a valid exception.
The student who has a clear picture of his or her college plans may make choices that help him or her achieve future goals, even if those choices effectively close doors on some other options.
Example: the dancer who will audition for elite dance companies or apply to schools such as Julliard can probably skip that extra year of high school science, math, or language without jeopardizing her future options.
Example: the struggling student or student who is late to mature already knows he or she isn’t going to the top-rated colleges in his or her state and would be better served with a more manageable academic load.
The risk with this exception is that a student may change his or her mind later and regret the decisions.
Keeping Options Open
My primary goal when advising families is to help each student maximize his or her future opportunities. I start with my go-to advice of taking four years of each of the five core courses, but then work to tailor course schedules to the specific situation.
Not every student is gifted in every academic area. Not every student wants to apply to the more competitive colleges in the area. So not every student needs to take the same high school courses.
My goal when discussing exceptions with families is to help align current wants (more electives, better grades, easier classes) with future plans (types of colleges, possible scholarships, more letters of acceptance.) It is all about creating the right balance for each student.
If you would like help with your academic planning, college selection, or applications, I offer a 90-minute consultation for $175. We can talk by phone, Skype, FaceTime, or in person. My consultation times are Tuesdays (9:00 am, 10:30 am, 6:00 pm, 7:30 pm, and select times on the weekends.) You can pay and schedule your consultation here.