It seems like I’m always the one having to deliver bad news.

I meet with clients who often want me to give them “permission” to take a ridiculously light course load or assure them that they can easily gain admission to a highly-selective university. As much as I would like to give the answers these clients want to hear, often the right advice isn’t popular.

Today I’m going to outline some of my “unpopular” academic advice.

Simply taking the SAT or ACT multiple times will not improve your score.

Yes, becoming familiar with the structure and questions on these tests can help students improve their scores. But simply taking the test over and over again rarely yields better results.

I know that some of us grew up with the belief that the more we do, the better we can achieve. There is some degree of truth in this, but when it comes to the ACT and SAT, most students top out after a certain amount of practice. There’s a false sense of hope that simply showing up and taking an exam again is going to result in higher scores.

Unpopular advice: Most students need to systematically work through and analyze two to six practice tests in order to improve their score on either the ACT or SAT. They need to work on content knowledge, test specific strategies, pacing, and focus. All of this needs to be done with an eye to maximizing points under actual testing conditions. Some students can do this on their own, but many need some guidance.

When selecting high school courses, college-bound students should take four years of the core academic courses.

This may not be an issue at your school; they may require students to take four years of English, math, science, and social studies in order to graduate. But if your school has lower standards, you need to avoid the temptation to take the easy way out.

A few years ago the State of Texas adopted new high school graduation standards which require:

  • 4 years English
  • 3 years math
  • 3 years science
  • 3 years social studies

Many clients are disappointed when I explain that as a college-bound student they need to take that fourth year of math, science, and social studies. The minimum graduation requirements are just that: minimum.

I had a student this fall who was not planning on taking math her senior year because, “It was hard.” Of course, it’s hard! Part of what she should be doing is showing a willingness to take on challenging work; college-level work isn’t going to be easy either. I strongly suggested she take some math course, but I couldn’t convince her. Since that time, she has received rejection letters from some very competitive colleges she applied to. I told her that we never would know if any of these might’ve been different had she decided to stick it out and take senior year math. To me (and to these colleges), it was a glaring red flag on her transcript that she was not taking math as a senior.

Unpopular advice: To be adequately prepared for college work (not to mention be competitive for admission), students should take four years of the core academic courses.

College-bound students should also plan to take additional years of another language.

Just like the core subjects above, students should plan to exceed minimum requirements when it comes to languages other than English (foreign language requirements.)

Why? We are living in an increasingly globalized society where language skills are valued in the job market. Additionally, everyone knows that third- and fourth-year language courses are harder than first year, so taking extra classes is one way to demonstrate a willingness to challenge yourself academically. There are plenty of other academic benefits to taking additional language classes including better understanding of grammar (in any language), heightened cognitive abilities, and a broader global perspective.

Unpopular advice: Unless a student has a learning difference that makes taking another language excessively burdensome, college-bound students should take three (preferably four) years of the same language. Students aspiring to the most challenging colleges (Ivy League, MIT, Rice, Duke, Stanford, etc.) should plan to take four or five years of the same language.

Avoid the “easy” schedule senior year.

Most students I know have met most of their graduation requirements by senior year and are left taking core academic courses and electives. Many schools in my area will allow seniors to have an off period– either arrive to school at second period instead of first or leave early in the afternoon.

It is appealing to take a little time off. But too much time off sends the wrong message. It’s like raising your hand and waving it and saying, “Coach, Coach, put me on the bench. I’m done learning.”

Unpopular advice: I  understand that in some cases a supervised study hall is appropriate and for a student with an otherwise challenging academic load. As a senior, one period off each semester is appropriate. But taking an “easy” schedule senior year is a bad idea.

If you’re able to take a more challenging class, take it.

Most people have heard some variation of this advice before. I want to clarify that this does NOT mean every course needs to be AP / IB / honors, but when appropriate, students should stretch their comfort zone and sign up for the more challenging option.

This advice needs to be taken as part of an overall picture of academic, extracurricular, and personal factors. Some students thrive with a full-load of advanced classes; other will struggle academically, socially, or emotionally when overloaded. Know your student and his or her limitations.

Unpopular advice: When it comes to more competitive colleges, challenging academic classes matter. A student who did not take advanced classes when available in high school is unlikely to get in (or keep up if they did) at the most academically focused universities. Failing to take advanced or higher level courses when appropriate sends a message that a student is not willing or able to do challenging work.

College Planning

I have an entire list of unpopular advice for visiting, selecting, and apply to college. I will share that next week.

Conclusion

It is often tempting to do what is fun or easy. (Eat cookies instead of broccoli or watch your favorite show instead of workout.) But in order to get the academic results we want in the long-term, we often have to take some unpopular advice.

If you have other academic planning questions, join my FREE private Facebook group (be sure to answer the three questions we ask for screening purposes): https://www.facebook.com/groups/CollegePrepResuts/