Hey, Juniors (and Sophs and Freshies too)! Making Your Course Selections Count (Plus Tips for Picking Courses, Staying Sane, Making Grades, Learning A Lot, and Getting Accepted) (2023 Updates)
Few things are as frustrating or painstaking (but also exciting!) as selecting your courses during high school. There’s all this pressure to take the most honors, APs, or IB courses possible — like there’s some magical combination of classes that will unlock your acceptance to the most fabulous college in the world — as if there were just one fabulous college ;-).
⚖️ FIND YOUR BALANCE
However, as with most things, you need to approach your course load with balance. Yes, you should challenge yourselves, but you’ve also gotta be realistic about how much you can handle. Also, consider courses that align with your interests because the world of college admissions is much wider than ticking courses off a list of what you (or your parents) think colleges want to see. Colleges want to see who you are and what you have to offer. And, if they want to see specific courses, they’ll let you know in their admissions section of the website, so be sure to read the “Course Recommendations” and “Course Requirements” sections carefully BEFORE YOU OPT-OUT OF THAT 4TH SCIENCE, MATH, OR FOREIGN LANGUAGE CLASS
I suggest that you take the hardest and most interesting classes you can, make the highest grades you can in those classes, and still find the balance to be able to do activities, follow interests, and take care of your mental, emotional, and physical health. It’s really all about the balance and learning to balance our lives is a skill you’ll always need. That means absolutely taking honors, AP, and IB classes that work in your schedule and with your balanced life. Push yourself, but don’t push yourself off the seesaw! (Do y’all even know what a seesaw is — is that still a thing on playgrounds? It’s been a while since I’ve been on a playground…)
🤓 ABOUT YOUR GPA
I get it. GPA and class rank can totally stress you out. No doubt, these are important metrics as they’re often the only concrete things a student can point to in their college apps. And for a lot of schools, especially state schools, your GPA and class rank are determining factors for whether or not you’ll be accepted. Yeah, this shit can be stressful.
Actually, for many other schools that do holistic application review, your GPA and class rank aren’t as critical as you might think. They’re pieces of a puzzle, parts of your whole application — and admissions officers know that. And they’re often not as important as your individual grades in your core classes. So take a few deep breaths and read on about how colleges really handle your GPA and class rank. No really, breathe in. Breathe out. Now do it a few more times.
Many colleges will recalculate your GPA. And many colleges don’t really consider GPA at all, but they’re more interested in your coursework and how you’ve done in your academic courses. I’d say in general, both your unweighted and weighted GPA are important to be able to give them a glimpse of where you fit in your high school. But they often use your unweighted GPA to recalculate with their own system.
Here’s what Dean J from UVA has said about how important the GPA is in admissions: “The answer most admission officers will give: It depends. GPAs are pretty meaningless because they aren’t standardized. The schools that recalculate will use them in conjunction with a review of the specific coursework on the transcript. The schools that don’t (like mine) look at individual courses and grades on the transcript. The GPA just doesn’t give me the detail about courses, grades, and trends I need to make a decision.”
Schools with holistic admissions often consider your course rigor and grades in specific classes more important than your overall GPA. They want to see that you’re taking the most rigorous course load available to you that you can responsibly handle and stay mentally and emotionally healthy. Other schools, especially many state schools, will be more willing to look at your overall GPA without significant emphasis on your course rigor. At the end of the day, whether or not one C or a handful of Bs will keep you out of highly selective colleges will depend on the rest of your application. But know that the difference between a 3.68 and a 3.7 is negligible, especially if they recalculate grades. And it’s always important to keep this in mind: even if you had perfect 100 A plus plus pluses in every subject, every semester, every year on your transcript, your odds of getting into the most highly rejective schools would still be low.
So, the best way to approach this is to be an amazing student because you want to learn, not because you want good grades. Study hard. Learn, but learn for learning. Learn because you’re fascinated.
Rather than obsessing about your grades, consider developing an authentic desire to learn and a thirst for knowledge. An avid reader who spends time self-studying a particular topic and then creates something or works somehow within that structure will most likely have a handful of grades looked over. A student whose whole schtick is only being a good student — probably not so much.
The fact of the matter is that admission to the most highly selective schools is ridiculously hard for everyone who’s applying, no matter how perfect they are. All you can do is move forward and make sure you have a broad college list with a wide range of selectivity. But while it’s ok to slip up here and there in your classes, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your classes your all. You should always try to excel in school. If you had some trouble early on in high school, you can turn the ship around. Upward progression is definitely a positive in your applications.
If you don’t have the most stellar grades, please don’t dwell on it. All you can do is move forward. If you need to explain the reason behind your not-so-great grades, you can and should address your grades head-on in the Additional Information section of the application. Be honest and upfront about what happened. Focus on what you’ve learned from your situation and how you’ll manage overwhelming and stressful situations in the future.
In the process, you’ll learn more from these bumps in your road than from anything else. Reflect on what happened, why you had these grade drops, and what you learned from them. Find the colleges that want you for who you are. Don’t stress out trying to figure out how to squish yourself into the tiny boxes of the most highly selective schools. Allow yourself some room to expand and grow. You’ll learn so much about yourself in the process of creating a list that fits you.
✅ ABOUT YOUR COURSE LOAD AND COURSE SELECTION
A good rule of thumb to use when selecting your courses, especially if you want to apply to a highly selective college, is to make sure you take a core academic curriculum. While you don’t need to be enrolled in more than five academic classes at a time, you should make sure you have at least four years of the following classes if you’re planning to apply to highly selective schools. (I know a lot of you take classes in middle school that can count towards your graduation requirements, but most colleges still want to see four years of these classes in high school.) I call it the 4×5:
English: (need all four years, and try to take AP Lang or AP Lit by senior year if possible)
History (or other Social Science)
Math: (try to finish by taking Calculus (or beyond) your senior year, especially if you’re a STEM kid or you are planning to apply to highly selective schools. A note here: Colleges are beginning to wake up to the idea that Calculus might not be essential to your overall education and are seeing the value of Statistics, but if you’re considering a STEM major at a highly rejective college, I’d still suggest making you sure you get Calculus on your transcript)
Science: (most colleges want at least a year of Biology, a year of Chemistry, and a year of
Physics — whatever the combo of AP, IB, Honors, and regular is)
Language Other Than English: (the most highly selective schools generally like to see you take four years of a foreign language — especially for Humanities majors. I know. You don’t want to. I hear it every day — that’s why I’ve included this doc — Why Take a Third or Fourth Year of Foreign Language? ).
Of course, this “rule” varies by college or university, so you should look up each of their course recommendations or requirements on their websites. Here’s what Yale says on their website: “Yale does not have any specific entrance requirements (for example, there is no foreign language requirement for admission to Yale). But we do look for students who have taken a balanced set of the rigorous classes available to them. Generally speaking, you should try to take courses each year in English, science, math, the social sciences, and foreign language”(https://admissions.yale.edu/advice-selecting-high-school-courses ). Additionally, some colleges regard IB courses as more rigorous than AP classes, and AP classes are often preferred over Dual Enrollment (“DE”) classes if students have these options. And, if you want to be a Humanities major, you should consider taking at least Honors or AP in some of those classes. If you think you want to be a STEM major, consider taking at least Honors or AP in those classes.
🧸 Back to the Balance
I hear each and every one of you about wanting to protect your physical, mental, and emotional health when dealing with a challenging course load. Reducing stress is an entirely valid goal. And no college expects you to take only APs, IBs, or Honors. Again, admissions officers want you to take the most rigorous course load you can comfortably handle, but that doesn’t mean overload. I’ve heard them say that somewhere between 7–9 AP classes total throughout high school is enough, but as always… you do you. Remember the balance. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the most highly selective (rejective) schools want to see these classes. If you can’t find a way to square your concerns for your well-being with what Yale expects from applicants, maybe you should widen your school list to include colleges that want you for you.
You shouldn’t run yourself ragged trying to get into a particular school. College is about much more than how you got in, and you are much more than your course load. Focus on what you can do to maximize your best academic performance and put together your best application.
🎙 Check out my YouTube Channel Chat with Ben Bousquet, Former Admissions Director at Vandy. You can find the link to it here.
- Take the hardest course load you can handle, while holding on to your mental health. It’s all about the balance.
- Your grades and courses are the most important aspect of your application. Stay focused on your schoolwork.
- Focus on the 4×5: four years of each of these subjects, Science, Math, English, History, and a Language Other Than English .
- You don’t have to take honors/AP/IB for every course. If Math isn’t your thang, and English is…well, you do you. Take Honors English. Take regular Math.
- Check out the course recommendations and requirements for the specific schools you are interested in and for your major if you know it. Scour those school websites. They contain magical, important info.
- A note about Calculus: If you’re interested in applying to selective/rejective schools and especially if you’re planning to be a STEM major, you really need to aim for taking Calculus by your senior year, if not before. If your school doesn’t offer it, you can know that colleges will evaluate your application based on your school profile. Still, I’d recommend that you try to find a way to take it — either online or at CC (esp for highly rejectives and STEM).
- Talk to your high school counselor and teachers to see where they think you might best be placed for some of the classes.
- Yes, I do think you need to take four years of Foreign Language.
Stay tuned for posts on summer plans (it’s not too late!) and Letters of Recommendation.