Choosing Classes

Your grades and your classes are among the most important factors for determining your eligibility at a top college. Admissions officers want you to challenge yourself with what’s immediately available, and look favorably on any initiative you take beyond your high school. 

As you choose your courses, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I taking the most rigorous courses available to me?
  • Am I taking at least one course in all core subjects (English, math, science, social studies, foreign language) each year?
  • Will I be able to do well in these courses?

If you are able to answer “yes” to each question, you have selected an excellent course load. 

How Transcripts are Reviewed

The transcript gives a lot of different information, which is viewed holistically. The overall question the admissions officer is trying to answer is: “Did this student take challenging courses in core subjects and excel in them?”

To illustrate this, we’ve put together a sample transcript and added comments on the parts that stand out.

Sample Transcript >>

In the example below, we’ve reviewed academic information for three students with different situations, to show how different transcripts might be viewed.

Student A

Student B

Student C

  • Grades improve over four years.
  • Has taken some IB courses, but is not pursuing IB Diploma (even though it is available).
  • Has only taken two science and two social studies courses.
  • Grades dipped to B’s sophomore spring; student explained that there was a death in the family.
  • Has taken at least one course in all core subjects each year.
  • Has taken as many AP courses as are available beginning junior year.
  • Grades are consistently in A range.
  • Has only taken 3 AP courses, but more than 10 AP courses are available at school.
  • Rigor of courses dropped from junior to senior year; 3 AP junior year, no AP senior year.
Result: Viewed somewhat unfavorably. Although the first point is a plus, the next two are red flags that the student is not challenging him or herself. Result: Viewed mostly favorably. Student is challenging him or herself and has recovered grades after one bad term with extenuating circumstances. Result: Viewed somewhat unfavorably. Even though the student earns A’s, classes are not the most rigorous available at school and difficulty has dropped recently.

Course Load FAQs

Q: How many AP courses do colleges expect me to take?

A: If AP courses are offered, highly selective colleges will expect you to begin taking AP courses, at the latest, in your junior year, and often starting your sophomore year (depending on your high school). The average AP course load is about 3 AP courses per year, but this is not a strict standard. 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.


Q: What if it’s not possible to take all the advanced/honors/AP classes at my school because of scheduling conflicts.

A: 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. 


Q. Prerequisites are preventing me from taking a higher level class that I believe I’m prepared for.

A: 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.


Q: I am struggling to balance my other responsibilities with school; as a result I may not do as wll in my courses as I know I can. 

A: High school grades are critically important. 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 how you can create more time for studying. 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.


Q: The advanced courses I wish to take have required fees.

A: 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.


Q: My high school does not offer many advanced or high level courses.

A: Beyond the immediate options of your high school, what other options are available in your community? Is there a local high school or college with more challenging courses? Online courses? Take advantage of the classes they offer during the summer, or even during the school year if you have time. 

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 college 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.