When asked about the number one factor in college admissions, many students are not aware that colleges overwhelmingly say it’s a rigorous high school curriculum. A strong college-prep curriculum is by far the best predictor of initial college success, and one that emphasizes writing and reading will keep you out of remedial writing courses freshman year.
As you do your college prep and finally go to college, remember that taking math through algebra II, and preferably beyond that, will help you meet quantitative course requirements, such as statistics or data analysis. Several years of the same high school foreign language, lab sciences, and history/social sciences are also basic requirements for many schools. Careful college planning will not only help you get into college, but will also help you do well on campus.
But how tough do your courses have to be to get into college?
That’s often the hardest thing to figure out as you formulate your college plan. To some degree, your curricular choices will be constrained by what you have studied so far and how much time you have left in high school. If you're taking algebra II as a junior, then you only have a few choices for senior year, such as pre-calculus or statistics. Freshmen and sophomores have more time to select courses that fit their interests and abilities, and that is a key point. You should stretch yourself in those areas where you have identified a personal skill or talent, while maintaining solid college-prep courses across the board. You don’t need to take AP Everything to get into college, but depending on the selectivity of the colleges you want to attend, you’ll need to take more demanding and challenging honors, accelerated, AP, International Baccalaureate (IB) courses to stand out in the college admissions process.
One of the questions school counselors are asked on the Common Application School Report forms (and many individual college applications) is the difficulty of your course load, compared to other college-bound students at your high school. Why? Colleges are essentially looking to see how much you have pushed yourself and where you stand. This provides the foundation for the question: “Should I take advanced courses, even if my grades will go down, or should I take regular-level courses and get straight A’s?” Let’s say you and another senior at your school apply to the same college. If you have a B average with mostly honors and advanced courses, and the other student has an A average but never took tough classes, chances are that colleges will reward you for your efforts.
Part of your college plan has to be about balance. Few selective colleges will excuse several C grades, even if you are taking hard classes. Likewise, doing so much homework and taking such difficult courses that you lose sleep, drop your activities, and are overcome by stress is not only unhealthy, but it also comes across negatively in your application. Overextending yourself like that doesn't help you get into college.
Even the best college plan doesn't always get you the classes you want
Sometimes you may not be able to take the classes you want, either because your schedule is too busy, or because your school does not offer them. Don’t despair! You can use your summers, as well as local community colleges, to expand your academic transcript. Many community colleges allow high school students to take evening, weekend, and summer classes. You can take high-level courses and earn college credit while showing your initiative! In effect, you go to college in order to go to college!
Summer school programs, such as those on college campuses, at private boarding schools, or at local high schools, can be part of your college prep. Such programs can help you add courses or move ahead for the following year. So if you’re that junior in algebra II this year and want to move ahead to calculus, you could possibly take a pre-calculus class this summer. (Make sure to get your school’s approval first.)
Taking harder courses should help you learn more, which is fun. You’ll also be better prepared for college and more likely to succeed, right from the start. Taking demanding courses over the course of your high school career will help you build your credentials for college. Such college planning will allow you to structure your applications and interviews around your curriculum and additional academic activities in order to help colleges understand your strengths, interests, and goals.
By Howard and Matthew Greene, hosts of two PBS college planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.