Exceptions to Standard High School Course Selection Advice


high school coursesIn the past month I’ve met with dozens of families, in person and via Skype, to discuss course selection for next school year.

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:

  1. A majority of classes come from core subjects: English, math, history, science, and foreign language.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


Tips For Finding Quality Backup Schools

Last week we passed the January 15 application deadline.  Most high school seniors should have submitted their college applications and now is the time most families wait to hear back from all the colleges on the list.  It is also the perfect time to make sure your child has at least one quality backup school on his or her list.

I stress the word “quality” because many families assume that the ultimate backup will be the area community college.  While community and junior colleges serve a great purpose, most of the students I know who applied to four year universities see these schools as unacceptable alternatives.

A quality backup school is one that is seen as acceptable to everyone in the family, meets the basic criteria (location, major, etc.), and would be viewed as a good alternative if all other plans fell through.  I encourage every student to plan for a financial and admissions backup when they develop their college list.

The financial backup is there in case none of the scholarship possibilities work out or family finances take a downward turn due to the economy or job loss.  The admissions backup is the school that will admit that student.  The state schools in Texas publish automatic admissions numbers, so many of my clients are encouraged to find a school from that list, but I’ve also had clients who have added at least one four-year school with open admissions policies, meaning they accept all applicants.

Part of college planning involves preparing for the worst-case admissions scenario.  I think it’s human nature to think “it will never happen to me.”  I think back to a former student who came into the high school counseling office one spring day.  She had just received her final college admissions notice and the news was not good.  Denied!  She applied to five schools and received five rejection letters.  She was stunned.  This was a good student in the top of her class with plenty of activities and personal strengths.  But she also had a list of five very competitive universities with no backup schools.

We sat down and started brainstorming options.  I suggested a number of universities where the application deadlines had not passed.  Each time she said, “I’d rather go to Columbia” or “Brown or Swarthmore are better.”  I kept reminding her that those ideal dream schools had sent her rejection letters; they were no longer options.  She insisted that she didn’t want to apply to any state universities and she didn’t want to “settle for less.”  It took a couple weeks and a few more meetings before she was ready to develop a better backup plan.

Ideally, students will plan ahead and incorporate quality backup schools in their college list in the fall.  Here’s what seniors can do this spring if they need to add some additional options:

  1.  Reevaluate criteria and priorities.  Get into the mindset of finding the school that would be the next choice if all the others sent rejection letters.  This doesn’t mean settling for less; it means finding a school that offers strong opportunities, but maybe be less well known or have easier admissions standards.  (Think “If I can’t drive the new Mercedes, would I still be happy with a new Honda Accord?”  Personally, I’d rather have the Honda than ride the bus.)
  2. Look for schools with late spring application deadlines.  I’m familiar with the schools in my state that have late spring admissions deadlines.  I also use the Common Application Deadline & Requirement chart.  Keep in mind that schools with rolling decision may not list a final application deadline, but once they fill their incoming class, they stop accepting students.
  3. Take applications seriously.  Just because a school may be a backup doesn’t mean students should assume they will get in without trying.  I encourage my clients to take the same approach they did with all other schools – send quality essays, take time to review and proofread, and send in optional supporting materials.
  4. Check the “space available” colleges.  In May colleges evaluate how many students have enrolled and how much space, if any, they have.  If you are in need of a backup school in May, June, or July, contact your counselor to find out which colleges and universities still have openings for students.

It is best to plan ahead and start thinking about alternatives junior year, but even in spring semester of senior year, students can take steps to add quality backup schools to their list.


All In! How To Avoid Overcommitting On Extracurricular Activities

In the past week I’ve met three new students who told me they were no longer involved in extracurricular activities because they had committed all their time to one thing which didn’t work out.

  • “Susan” played competitive softball.  She was on the school’s varsity team and a competitive select club team.  Last fall an injury permanently ended her ability to play.  Currently her only extracurricular activity is physical therapy.
  • “James” was in band.  He marched every fall, played concerts and competitions in the spring, and attended camp in the summer.  Band consumed his free time.  After marching season, he quit, primarily due to personality conflicts, but he was also burnt out on spending 20 hours a week on band.  Currently he is enjoying his extra time, but he has no other extracurricular activities.
  • “Morgan” was the queen of competitive cheer.  From the time she was in elementary school, she lived in the gym.  She took tumbling lessons, strength and flexibility classes, and competed with some of the best teams in the area. She quit her freshman year saying, “I was tired; it just wasn’t fun anymore.”  She’s currently involved with two clubs at school that take a few hours of her time each month.

Here’s my complaint – had Susan, James, and Morgan completed college applications a year or two ago they would look like superstars– highly involved, holding leadership positions, truly dedicated to developing interests and talents.  But now, junior year, when it counts, they aren’t doing much.

As parents we can talk about overcommitted kids or the pressures to excel from a young age.  But my complaint is with the “all in” mentality we’ve developed with activities. It can start slowly as kids are naturally drawn to some activities over others.  Add the pressure from coaches, teachers, or directors who suggest private lessons, additional practice, or off-season training.  Pretty soon kids are so deeply involved with ONE activity that if they choose to quit or are forced out due to injury, they have nothing left.

I understand that to become truly great in an area sacrifices must be made.  Sometimes potential Olympic gymnasts or figure skaters must forgo the traditional school experience to compete on a national stage at age 15, 16, or 17.  I know Justin Bieber didn’t spend the past two years worried about service hours for National Honor Society.

But most of our kids won’t be performing at the Grammys or Olympics.  Most of them won’t continue in their sport or activity after high school.  So are we doing them a service by allowing them to go all in with one activity at an early age?

Focusing on one activity to the exclusion of others can have drawbacks, even for students who continue to excel.  Students run the risk of appearing one-dimensional and missing out on developing other interests or related skills.

Before you allow or encourage your child to go all in with one activity, ask yourself some questions:

  • Could we make time for a couple hours of something else each week?  (Think service, writing, music, academics, work)
  • What other talents or interests could we promote with another activity?  Can we show another dimension or greater depth?  (Avoid the “dumb jock” stereotype by tutoring before school.  Develop writing and research talent by starting a blog.  Pursue an interest in the medical field by volunteering a few hours a week at the hospital.)
  • Is there a way my child could use his or her talents in another way?  (The athlete who volunteers with Special Olympics or coaches younger students.  The musician who plays at the retirement center every week or helps with the middle school band.)
  • Are we emphasizing the right things? Does our allocation of time and money reflect the values and things we feel are most important?

I love seeing kids who are passionate and involved.  They tend to do better in school.  But when it comes to college admission (and the more important goal of raising responsible, capable, and caring kids) going all out for one activity isn’t as beneficial as finding time for some balance.

My advice to Susan, James, and Morgan was the same.  Get out there and get involved.  Let your choice of clubs, activities, service groups, or work reflect your personality, talents, interests, and potential college major.  Participate in things that are rewarding.  Hang out in places and with people who encourage you to do your best and be a better person.  Don’t worry about what colleges want; there is no magic formula.  Get out there and get involved.  Just do it!

College Admission Interview Do’s and Don’ts


In the previous post, I outlined college interview basics— the things every student should do before scheduling a college admissions interview.  Today I’m adding a list of college admission interview do’s and don’ts.  These are intended for students preparing for an admissions interview, but many apply for job or scholarship interviews as well.

Parents, some of these tips may seem so obvious that you question why I’ve included them.  Most students have had limited opportunities to speak about their strengths in an interview situation.  I coached high school speech and debate for seven years and have been helping students with admission interviews for years; I’ve seen otherwise confident and articulate students do incredibly stupid things in interviews.  Don’t discount the basic and obvious guidelines for interviewing.  Don’t assume all bright students will have or use common sense when under pressure.

DO dress nicely.  Khaki pants, skirts, or slacks are appropriate for an interview.

DON’T be afraid to show your personal sense of style.  Your friends and teachers should be able to recognize you!

DO arrive ten minutes early.  Nothing starts an interview off worse than running late and having to apologize.

DON’T chew gum, swear, or use slang.

DO leave your parents behind.  The school wants to hear from you not mom or dad.  Parents can visit the financial aid office while you interview.

DO accept a glass of water if offered one.  You can take a sip if you need a moment to collect your thoughts.

DON’T bring your cell phone in to the interview.  Leave it in the car.

DO your research ahead of time.  Check some of specifics you should know as you prepare for an interview here.

DON’T act as if you are bored, in a hurry to leave, or disinterested in the university or interview.

DO sit up straight, look the interviewer directly in the eye, offer a firm handshake, and speak with confidence.

DO know the two or three main qualities, achievements, or talents you want the interviewer to know about you.  Look for opportunities to work those stories into your responses.

DON’T go to an important interview without practicing first.  Be ready to answer standard questions about your academic strengths and plans for the future.

DO bring your list of questions and extra copies of your resume.  Try to have your questions memorized, so you can speak casually to the person interviewing you.

DON’T ignore your interviewer.  Make sure you get his or her name; write it down if you might forget it.  Ask what he or does for a living and what he or she studied in college.

DO take turns asking and answering questions.  You should find out as much about the school as they learn about you.

DO remain calm and confident.  It is ok to feel nervous, but be yourself.

DON’T talk too fast.  Many people speak quickly when they feel nervous.

DO offer honest answers.  You can take a moment to think about a question before you respond.

DO have substantive reasons why THAT university is the best choice for YOU.  Location, attractiveness of the campus, and prestigious reputation are the WRONG answer to this essential question.

DON’T ramble.  Explain your answers, but know when to stop.

DO convey clearly why YOU are right for this particular university.

DON’T forget eye contact.  It was already mentioned, but too many applicants look at the table or around the room and never look the interviewer in the eye.

DO ask for a business card at the end of your interview and see if it would be ok if you contact them with any further questions.  Thank your interviewer for their time.

DO write a thank you note – a hand written card you mail.