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.

How Many AP Classes Should a Student Take?

Spring is the time when students and parents complete course selection for next school year.  Many students will have the option of taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes.  How many AP classes should a student take?  Find out in this short video (5 minutes.)

Plus, learn why it might be best to get AP credit in a student’s least favorite subjects.


How many AP classes should a student take?

School limitations:

  • Number of AP classes offered at your high school
  • Are there limits on the number of AP classes a student can take

Personal limitations:

  • Students should be able to balance AP classes with activities and other courses
  • It is important to show high achievement in AP classes.  A “C” or “D” in and AP class may be a sign a student is overloaded academically.
  • There is a personal limit where students can balance achievement with challenging classes

Benefit to taking AP classes in weaker subject:

  • High scores on AP exam may eliminate the need to take that course in college
  • High school AP teachers may be more accessible and better teachers than college professors.
  • Using AP credit to exempt from introductory classes in some fields of study may hurt a student’s academic success in college.

But My High School Is Ultra-Competitive


My daughter attends a very competitive high school. Do admissions officers know each high school relatively well? Will they know how hard it is to be in the top quarter at her school?

Yes, admissions officers try their best to be familiar with each and every high school in their assigned area; however, you may find that one admissions officer is in charge of hundreds or thousands of schools. While they try to know the schools by reputation they may not know the specific details quite as well.

One thing that helps is the school profile that should be sent along with your transcripts.  A high school profile outlines the overall picture of that school—the number of advanced classes offered, percentage of graduates attending college, clubs and organizations and whether they have limitations on things like the number of AP classes a student is allowed to take.  You can ask for a copy of your school’s profile in the counselor or registrar’s office.

Admissions officers will do their best to distinguish what’s going on at each high school in their area. If you have any doubt this might also be an opportunity to have a well-written counselor letter of recommendation that states in specific terms exactly how competitive your high school situation is.

I know sometimes students will use this as an excuse. Oh, my high school is so hard. Nobody can get into the top 10% or the top quarter. Keep in mind; colleges are looking at applications from lots of candidates who attend very competitive schools. You may not be alone. Colleges will try and keep it in mind but the bottom quarter at a competitive school is not going to be seen as more impressive than top quarter at a not so competitive school.

There are some advantages to attending a challenging school.  You will be academically prepared for college-level work.  A lot of students from lesser schools find themselves behind or in need of remedial coursework.  You already know how to balance the challenges of demanding academic work.  You have better developed reading, writing, problem solving, and analytical skills.  While your class rank may suffer now, you will enter college prepared to achieve.

Don’t let the competitive atmosphere of your high school become an excuse for complacency.  Do the best with the opportunities and challenges presented to you.


Academic Planning for High School

“When do we need to begin planning for college?”

“What do we need to do in junior high to prepare for college”

“Does junior high even matter?”

College planning seems so far-off and parents of middle school or junior high students aren’t sure of their place in this process.  If you have a student grade 6-8, your early college planning begins now!

Now is the time to lay the foundation for high school (and college admission) success. Here’s what you should be doing now:

1.  Earning top grades and learning. Take this opportunity to build a solid academic foundation and develop skills in reading, problem solving, writing, math, listening, communication, and analysis.

2.  Taking challenging courses.  All students should be challenged in their academic classes.  Struggling students may face the challenge of enrichment courses; embrace this opportunity to get caught up.   Some students will be sufficiently challenged with the regular curriculum while others may have the option of advanced classes.

Depending on your school system, high school classes may be offered to seventh or eighth graders.  These courses are a great way to challenge top students.  Just remember if high school credit is awarded, these classes and grades will appear on the transcript sent to colleges.

3.  Experimenting with interests and activities.  The focus isn’t resume building; activities allow students the opportunity to expand their talents, interests, and strengths.  Elective courses help, but students should get in the habit of participating in extracurricular activities.  You aren’t limited to school activities.  Consider community organizations, youth group, sports, and volunteer opportunities.

4. Developing study and organizational skills.  Students who effectively make the transition from elementary school, learn to prioritize, balance the demands of classes and activities, organize their work, and become responsible for themselves will be ready for the challenges of high school.  Kids aren’t perfect and in the process of developing independence they will make mistakes.  Better now than in high school.

5.  Promoting positive peer groups.  Grades 6-8 are socially challenging times.  Unfortunately they are also the years when many students begin to associate with “the wrong crowd” out of a desire to belong. Sex and drug use are obvious problems, but watch for peers who don’t value academics because those attitudes can rub off on others. 

Colleges focus on student achievements in high school, so grades 6-8 are your dress rehearsal for what’s to come.

If you have questions on planning for high school or college admissions, let me know.  You can post questions on the College Prep Facebook Page: