Choosing High School Courses for College Success

The Balancing Act: Choosing High School Courses for College Success

(Reprinted with permission from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling- NACAC)

High school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are probably beginning to sign up for your courses for next year. As you ponder whether to take German or Spanish, chemistry or earth science, keep in mind that your choices today will matter tomorrow.

Building a foundation
"Choices made as a freshman and sophomore could affect choices for the rest of the student's life," says Kristin Crouse from ACT media relations.

That's because what you study now forms the foundation of your education. Doing well in Algebra 1 will help you succeed in Algebra 2 and in even more advanced math courses. Taking an honors English course as a sophomore or junior will help you do better in senior English, write better application essays, and even influence your success in that college freshman English composition class.

In addition to preparing you for college work, taking solid high school courses makes you more competitive in the college admission process.

"Admission committees primarily focus on the strength of curriculum taken and performance within that curriculum," says Donald Hapward, director of admission at South Dakota School of Mine & Technology (SD). "Grade point average and class rank and usually SAT or ACT results are considered third or fourth."

So what do I take?
The best preparation for college work--and college admission--is a challenging curriculum that's heavy on "core courses." Core courses are the basics: math, science, English, social studies, foreign language.

"Pick courses that keep the most options open," says Shaun McElroy, director of college counseling at Escuela Campo Alegre, The American School in Caracas, Venezuela. "Push to take the highest level in math and English that you can handle, as these will serve you best."

For juniors, it can be tempting to slack off once you've taken the number of core courses required for high school graduation, but don't give into that temptation. Your competition in the selective college admission game is taking that extra year or two of foreign language or that senior-year advanced chemistry elective.

"Try and max out with four years in all the academic core areas, as this gives you the best breadth of options," says McElroy.

Although core courses are the most important, choosing your electives wisely can also make a difference. Electives are your opportunity to follow your passions and round out your education.

  • If you're concerned about the environment, take an extra earth science or environmental studies course.
  • If singing is your first love, take a music theory course or try learning to play a musical instrument.
  • If you're fascinated with cars, get some hands-on experience by trying a course in auto mechanics.
  • If you'd love to own your own business someday, take accounting or other business-oriented classes.
  • If you rush home every day to update your personal Web site, take advantage of any available electives in computers. (Actually, all students should take whatever computer courses may be available at their school--in nearly every field of study, computer literacy is a big asset.)

Keeping a balance
The very best college applicants have made outstanding grades in the toughest core courses available at their high school. But it takes a very strong student, indeed, to make straight A's in an all-AP or honors line up and still have time for friends, family, activities, and sleep. So beware of overburdening yourself. You'll do yourself no favors if you sign up for a ridiculously difficult schedule.

"Do not take tough courses solely for taking tough courses," says McElroy. "Ask yourself, how hard do you work? How hard are you willing to work? How else do you spend your time? If you have a job or play varsity athletics or volunteer a lot, it might be better to take two or three advanced courses and excel in everything."

Juniors should also take their college search into account. Many experts advise students that the college search and application process takes as much time and work as another class.

Your high school counselor and teachers can help you figure out what is challenging--but not too challenging. If you're not sure about whether you should take a particular course, ask the teacher how much work it will involve. If you're taking three AP classes in the fall, for example, it may be smart to wait until spring to take that advanced physics course taught by the hardest grader in the school.

"It's always better to start off slowly and speed up later than to overburden yourself and regret it," says John Boshoven, counselor for continuing education at Community High School (MI) and director of college counseling for Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit. "If you think you want to take all the hard classes to look better later, remember that doing poorly in hard classes gives you no advantage."

In fact, a mid-semester reality check may be in order if you're having problems keeping up. "Generally, if students are really struggling to get a B or C, they should think about dropping down a level or making some other change," says Amy Thompson, college and career counselor at York Community High School (IL). So before you sign up for a particularly heavy course load, talk with your counselor about your options, just in case you realize in the fall that you're in over your head.

Trust yourself
When you're making decisions about your courses, your counselor, teachers, and parents can have valuable insight. Listen to what they have to say about your strengths and weaknesses, and take into account their advice on course scheduling. But also trust your own interests and instincts.

"We encourage students to be as realistic as they can," says Thompson. "They know themselves better than anyone else, so they have to decide how much challenge they can handle."

Written by Jennifer Gross.