Choosing High School Classes

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

As you choose your courses, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I taking at least one course in all core subjects each year? (Core subjects include math, science, history/social studies, English, and foreign language.)
  • Am I taking the most rigorous courses available to me?
  • 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

Transcripts provide information about your high school career. Admissions officers will try to answer this question: Did the student take challenging courses in core subjects and excel in them? Take a look at the three sample transcripts below for insight into how admissions officers might review transcripts.

Transcript A

Transcript B

Transcript C

  • Grades improve steadily over four years.
  • Has taken some IB courses, but is not pursuing IB Diploma (although it is available).
  • Has only taken two science and two social studies courses in favor of senior off period, but not to work a part-time job.
  • Grades dip to low B’s second semester of sophomore year; student experiences a death in the family.
  • Has taken at least one course in all core subjects each year.
  • Has taken almost all the AP courses that are offered at the beginning of junior year.
  • Grades are consistently in A range.
  • Has taken 4 AP courses, but more than 10 AP courses are available at school.
  • Rigor of courses drops from junior to senior year (3 AP courses junior year and 1 senior year).
Viewed somewhat unfavorably. Although the first point is definitely a plus, the next two are signs that you may not be challenging yourself. Viewed mostly favorably. You are challenging yourself and have recovered your grades from one difficult semester with extenuating circumstances. Viewed somewhat unfavorably. Although you have straight A’s, your classes are not the most rigorous available at school, and coursework difficulty has dropped.

While your grades and coursework rigor are very important, it’s important to note that your application and transcript are reviewed holistically and in context. Read the FAQs below for more information.

Course Load FAQs

What kind of other information can I provide admissions officers? 

Many students have extenuating circumstances, such as working a part-time job to support family, caring for an ill family member, or experiencing other personal circumstances. Be sure to explain these in the additional information sections of your application. You may also explain academic situations such as school course limitations or scheduling conflicts. 


How many AP courses do colleges expect me to take?

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 and your health.


What if it’s not possible to take all the advanced/honors/AP classes at my school because of scheduling conflicts or school policies?

With good reasons, administrators can sometimes be persuaded to be flexible. Find your reasons and schedule a meeting with them. Or, take courses at another high school at another time, or at a local community college. You may explain scheduling conflicts or other issues in the additional information sections of your application. 


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

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. If you are stretched over various student clubs, sports, or other activities, have an honest discussion with the group members about how you need more time for school. You may even want to consider eliminating activities.


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

Beyond the immediate options of your high school, what other options are available in your community? A local high school, college, or even your state may offer more courses in the summer, whether online or in-person. You can also self-learn from free online courses. 


The advanced courses I wish to take have required fees.

Fee waivers are available for AP exams and IB exams. Talk to your teacher or counselor and explain your economic situation, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Community colleges usually offer discounted rates for high school students.