Your grades and your classes are among the most important factors for determining your eligibility at a top college. While colleges will take many other factors into account, such as your extracurricular activities and essays, you first need to clear a certain academic hurdle.
With the classes you’ve taken so far, and the classes you plan to take, are you competitive for the colleges on your list? What do other students across the country do? Here, we will discuss the academic pathway of a high school student who is seeking admission to a highly selective, top-ranked college or university.
Meet the Basics
You should check specific course requirements at the schools you're interested in. The most selective colleges and universities will expect you to challenge yourself with a rigorous courseload and make the most of the opportunities your school has to offer. For example, this means choosing AP Biology over plain Biology when the AP course is available.
If you’re interested in a particular area of study, such as science or medicine, then load up on science courses beyond the minimum expectations. Colleges will notice your passion and dedication to your interests, and better prepares you for your undergraduate studies.
What is a rigorous courseload?
How many APs should I take?
Colleges are looking for students to be taking challenging academic classes throughout their high school career. If AP courses are offered, highly selective colleges will expect you to begin taking AP courses in your junior year. The average AP courseload is about 3 AP courses per year, but this is by no means a strict standard.
AP or IB courses demonstrate you are motivated and interested in challenging yourself, as well as give an indication of how well you may perform in the college setting. For example, if you are earning Cs in AP classes, they will expect you to earn Cs in college. If you are earning As in AP classes, you are a more attractive applicant because they assume that you are also capable of earning As in college. If your school offers advanced classes in the 9th and 10th grades as well, taking those courses earlier can help you be a stronger applicant.
In selecting your courses, don’t overdo it. If you’re not sure if you can handle a class, talk to the teacher, take a look at the class schedule, and maybe take a look at the textbooks to get a better sense of whether or not you should take the course.
It’s important to take challenging courses, but it’s equally important that you do well in them. If taking 4 AP courses means your grades will suffer and you’re up all night studying, you may wish to decrease your AP load for the sake of your GPA as well as your health and sanity.
Make the Most of What’s Available
Challenge yourself with classes at your school, and beyond. College admissions officers look favorably upon academic initiative. They want you to challenge yourself with what’s immediately available, and look favorably on any initiative you take beyond your high school.
Survey your immediate options – does your high school offer the type and level of class that you want? If not, look beyond your specific high school. Does another high school or even a community college in your area offer this course? The greatest mistake a student can make is to accept what is given to him or her. Instead, it’s useful to picture your ideal high school education without thinking about limitations, and then do your best towards achieving your goals.
Beyond the immediate options of your high school, what other options are available in your community? An often underutilized resource is your local community college or university. Take advantage of the classes they offer during the summer, or even during the school year if you have time. Taking courses at this level offers a new and valuable perspective on your educational experience. Credits are often transferable to your high school transcript, as well as your future college transcript. Consult your guidance counselor and college of choice for the exact information.
Make the most of opportunities at your school and look for additional opportunity. Below we’ve included some suggestions for overcoming common obstacles that may arise:
Scheduling conflicts: Sometimes it is not possible to take all the advanced/honors/AP classes at your school because of scheduling conflicts. Alternately, you may find yourself interested in a community college course, but have other commitments that prevent you from attending the class.
Suggestions: With good reasons, administrators can sometimes be persuaded to be flexible. Find your reasons and schedule a meeting with them. Or, take the course at another high school at another time, or at a local community college. If you have scheduling conflicts with community college courses, you may still be able to take the course online, or through some other special arrangement. Talk to professors and administrators to see what options are available.
Lack of Prerequisites: Prerequisites may prevent you from taking a higher level class which you believe you’re prepared for.
Suggestions: talk to your teachers to understand the details of the prerequisite. Is it possible to learn the required material on your own, and take a qualifying test to show you are ready? Alternatively, you might also be able to take summer school to fulfill those prerequisites.
Time Management: You may find yourself overwhelmed and with little time for studying. You may not be getting the grades you want because the class is challenging and you have other obligations, which might include extracurricular activities, an after-school job, or family commitments.
Suggestions: Your high school grades are critically important, and are one of the first measures of performance they examine. If you are experiencing difficulties with your classes, carefully look at how you spend your time. Separate what you absolutely have to do from what you think you should do, and prioritize your studies. If you have family obligations, you may wish to talk to your family to discuss options that will help you create more time for studying. If you find yourself over-committed to student clubs, sports, or other activities, have an honest discussion with the group members about how you need more time for school, and they will respect you for clearly stating your priorities.
Classes require additional fees: Some advanced courses, such as AP courses and IB courses, may require additional fees for exams or materials. Community college courses often offer discounted rates for high school students.
Suggestion: Fee waivers are available for AP exams and IB exams. Talk to your teacher/counselor/administrator and explain your economic situation, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Community colleges usually offer discounted rates for high school students.
Challenge Yourself and Do Well
There really isn’t a formula for crafting a perfect high school career. In the end, colleges are looking for you to show that you have challenged yourself and done well with your courses at your high school. They will be impressed with initiative that you take beyond the high school level. If your school doesn’t offer advanced courses, and you don’t have a local community college or university to take more courses, don’t worry. Colleges know what sorts of courses are offered at your high school. They will be looking for you to do the best that you can in your specific circumstances, and will appreciate additional efforts you take to create opportunity for yourself.