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Course Selection: Why Your High School Class Decisions are Important

For many high schools, course selection for the next school year begins as early as January. So, the fall is often a good time to contemplate your next steps. While electives and core classes may vary from school to school, there are a few good rules to follow in order to maximize your time in high school.


Assessing Course Levels

Rule 1: Take the Correct Level of Coursework for You

First and foremost, take the correct level of classes so that you will be challenged and successful at the same time. In some high schools, it may be difficult to avoid getting caught up in the pressures of taking the most difficult courses available. While some students might find it in their best interest to take five AP classes during junior or senior year, that path is certainly not the best decision for most students.

Instead, take the most challenging class that you can handle in the subjects that interest you the most. So, if you are stronger in math, take an honors math class, or if you are stronger in history, don’t be afraid to try an honors or AP history class.


Rule 2: Elevate Your Course Difficulty Year Over Year

Another important piece of advice is to evaluate your level of course work, step up your game, and challenge yourself year over year. For example, if during freshman year you took one honors class and four academic classes and you did well, then try taking two honors classes during sophomore year and maybe three or four during junior year.

If fact, the Assistant Dean for Diversity and Outreach at Stanford University explained it well to Khan Academy:

We are not saying to take every advanced course available at your high school. You need to find that balance for yourself. But we do want to make sure that you are comfortable with challenging yourself every step of the way. So beyond just GPA, beyond just rank in class, what we really are more concerned with is your journey over time, how you got there. So when we look at the transcript, what we really do is take apart year by year and course by course.


Developing Your Interests 

Rule 3: Focus on Subjects That Interest You

Too many students are worried about selecting classes that might impress colleges. However, one of the most important aspects of high school is to develop yourself as a person. From learning time management to discovering passions, high school is a time when you can explore different fields of study or topics of interest, in particular through elective classes.

The reality is that most admission officers would prefer that you take classes, join clubs, and participate in activities that give a greater insight into who you are as a person. MIT explains it best:

Choose your activities because they delight, intrigue, and challenge you, not because you think they'll look impressive on your application. Go out of your way to find projects, activities, and experiences that stimulate your creativity and leadership, that connect you with peers and adults who bring out your best, that please you so much you don't mind the work involved...What we really want to see on your application is you being you - pursuing the things you love, growing, changing, taking risks, learning from your mistakes, all in your own distinctive way. 


Take advantage of these opportunities to explore new subjects and develop new skills. Through this process you might realize that your ceramics class offers a place for you to destress from the pressures of your core classes or that your engineering technology class is much more interesting and fun than you would have anticipated.

As a result, you might follow a different path than you ever had previously imagined and learned a great deal about yourself in the process. The best way to accomplish this self-discovery is to take some time to read through your school's course catalog and don't be afraid to try something new.


Completing Your Requirements 

Rule 4: Research Your Course Requirements

It is important to take the classes that interest you while also making sure that you fulfill the necessary requirements. High schools have a minimum amount of classes that you must take in each core subject to graduate; however, the level of college to which you are applying might have a higher standard.

Most colleges require the core classes of English, math, history, science, and foreign language. Typically, a student's transcript will contain the following number of classes:

  • 4 years of English
  • 3-4 years of math
  • 3-4 years of history
  • 3-4 years of science
  • a minimum of 2 years of foreign language

Often, the more selective colleges would like to see five core class taken each year so that they know you are prepared to handle a certain level of work in college. However, Greg Roberts, Director of Admission at the University of Virginia, explains that

“It’s not necessarily an individual discipline or course that we’re fixated on. If a student is going into engineering, then yes we’re looking closely at Physics, we’re looking closely at Calculus. But if a student is a linguist, I’m not necessarily as concerned that he or she did not have Calculus. It’s all relative and dependent on the school or program that they’re entering at the university."


It's also important to note that colleges do not expect you to take classes that are not offered at your high school.


Senior Year Selection

Rule 5: Continue to Work Hard During Your Senior Year

Senior year matters - more than you might think. It is important to discover and challenge yourself throughout high school, including senior year. Colleges are looking for students who are still engaged in the learning process because, you guessed it, college is just an extension of that process.

Admission counselors do not want you to take a break from learning or to coast through senior year. In fact, it's just the opposite, since senior year is the last year to show the colleges what you are capable of doing. As a result, many colleges will ask for your senior year's first semester grades prior to deciding on your admittance. Also, if you haven't performed up to your ability in the first three years, look at senior year as a way to prove to colleges that you do have the potential to be successful at their universities.

At the end of the day, let's try to make high school a time when students are on the path of self-discovery instead of intense competition. Let's focus on developing individuals who can be productive members of society rather than overwhelmed, stressed-out teenagers. Finally, let's attempt to bring the fun back in high school so that parents can enjoy the last few years of having their children at home with them.