Advice on High School Course Selection from Admission Professionals
By Peter Van Buskirk on April 15, 2021
This is a transcription of a recent podcast episode where Former Dean of Admission and Strategic Advisor to Scoir, Peter Van Buskirk, has a discussion with Rob Springall and Bert McBrayer of PSU, to provide high schoolers with relevant and timely tips about course selection.
Introduction & understanding admission roles – 0:00
PETER: I'm sure that you agree that there is a lot of, sort of milestone moments, for families as they proceed in the planning for college, that ultimately they are hitting the last milestone right now and they're hopefully finding admission and trying to make decisions about where they enroll. But long before that sometime in the junior, perhaps even in the sophomore year, in the spring there are conversations about course selections what should we take next year and it seems that no matter how often we have conversations and information sessions at high schools or one to one with families there seem to be some messages that just never stick very well and I'd like to have the conversation with you fellas today because you've seen the admission process for many different things and Rob help us understand you're not just at Penn State but you have a history of different reading or evaluation experiences. Could you help us understand where you're coming from that way?
ROB: Sure Peter, it's of course great to be with you and your listeners. Before I was at Penn State, I was Vice President for Enrollment at Muhlenberg College in Allentown PA, before that, I was at Bucknell University which is also a liberal arts institution, also happens to be in Pennsylvania, and have worked in a couple of larger places including Cornell University and the University of Central Florida, so this topic is really meaningful to me in that it does depend – the answer – a bit on the type of institution a student is looking at.
PETER: So there is no one-size-fits-all when we hear the conversation about course selections. Bert, what is your background and experience that brings you into this conversation.
BERT: Sure, great to be here Peter thanks for having both of us. So it's funny that Rob and I have similar backgrounds in that it's a variety right, so prior to I’ve been at Penn State for 11 years now, prior to Penn State I was at Bucknell for short time Robin I did not overlap, but I lived in in the Lewisburg area beautiful countryside, prior to that I worked at Elizabethtown College in Lebanon, PA down in the Lancaster County area, and I was there for about five years or so and the first place I worked with Juniata College in Huntington Pennsylvania. I was right out of college myself and that was kind of my first job, and I got a real taste of the admissions career and well, my first director said you're in it for three or thirty… and I'm working I'm not quite there yet but I'm working on thirty.
PETER: When folks hear in the title: "executive vice president" or "executive director of admission" that this sort of self-explanatory…but when they hear it and "evaluation" what does that mean what does the evaluation part bring to your work?
BERT: Sure so the way that I kind of typically explain my role to folks in lay terms is the team that I oversee the kind of is the process operations and so that's the receipt of documents and transcripts and data entry and those kinds of things…but also the decision making arm if you will of the office of the operation so that the staff that I work with day-to-day evaluating first-year applicants, and evaluating transfer applicants, and evaluating international students applications, and things like there's a long list of niche kind of populations that we break out into buckets in our operation…but so the evaluation piece of it is looking at – for first-year students for the likely the audience is going to be listening in to this conversation – for first-year students we’re looking at the high school record, we're looking at the courses the student is selected in high school, grades they've gotten and kind of that part of the academic record.
Understanding how your academic record plays into admissions - 4:34
PETER: Rob, I'd like you to kind of reflect on the sum of your experiences where does the academic record fit in the selection process? So if you look at the many parts of an admission application that admission officers consider, where does the academic record fit?
ROB: Peter the academic record, in my career, has always been really the number one piece when we make decisions about whether or not a student might fit at in institution, and I'll give you a short example from my more extended history when I was admissions officer at Cornell University in the late 90s, early aughts we still read applications on paper in Manila folders, and usually I'd be reading with a partner and the agreement I usually had with those partners is they might read the stories, they might read the context first, and I said let me let me tackle the transcript first…because as the person who was the admission officer as opposed to the reader who was usually a faculty member or another member of the Cornell community, I knew one of our responsibilities was taking that file to the director with an academic component in our recommendation, and if the student was well prepared if I could see on the transcript good preparation in the courses that I knew would make that students successful at Cornell, then we have a very positive conversation about the traits characteristics…if it was a less stellar academic record, it literally changed the course of the conversation to about struggles, context, and potentially whether or not there was anything else compelling in the application to recommend the student for admission or would the academic record in and of itself stop the conversation about whether or not to admit that student.
PETER: Sounds like the academic record is the portal through which your student needs to pass in this admission process in order to get a broader review. You said an academic record can stop everything else.
ROB: The academic record can and when I was at the University of Central Florida for example some of that was dictated to us in a state rubric that all state universities had to follow, but again students would have to meet certain academic characteristics to really get further consideration if there were academic choices or performance that was questionable, the essay the recommendations, the other components of the application…I don't want to say became superfluous…but it certainly made it much more challenging for candidates to make that compelling argument if the academic record didn't really demonstrate proper preparation.
A perspective on the evaluation process - 7:32
PETER: Is this quantifiable? [In] this evaluation of the record can you put courses into an algorithm and grades into an algorithm and come up with an answer as to yes the students ready, and no that student’s not ready?
BERT: That's a great question. I don’t know if I would necessarily simplify it that much. I mean it's going to depend on the institution that is evaluating the application certainly. So at Penn State, we are looking at the student’s academic record, and not just the courses they took, but the level of course they took, so has the student challenged themselves with honors, or AP, or International Baccalaureate, you know those types of differential level courses? And so we do try to quantify as much as we possibly can…I think you're kind of on to something there, but not all of that is, you know school A and school B maybe a little bit different in how they look at an AP course, or an IB course, or an Honors course or what have you. So I think in most cases schools are trying to look at that quantitative data as much as possible, but it doesn't always shake out to be the same from university to university or college to college.
PETER: So, as you massage the data, are you focusing more on the ability of the student to do the work at Penn State, or the readiness of the student?
BERT: I think both, so we definitely are looking for students who have a high ability to get good grades and get good scores on AP exams or whatever the case may be, but that challenge is there too, as I mentioned kind of with the student's rigor of the course is they've selected and that the more rigorous the courses are, in theory, the more prepared the student is going to be.
Now, if you take really rigorous courses and you perform really poorly, that's different than, you know, someone who takes a less rigorous – in air quotes, I’m are quoting right now – less rigorous schedule but then get all A's and B’s. So, really we're looking for students who are well prepared but have the ability to succeed as well, so kind of both of those pieces.
PETER: Rob, along those lines, have you ever heard the question: “Is it better for me to take an easier course right now I can get the A, or take a harder course where I can get the B or C?” What's the answer to that question?
ROB: I understand, it does come up a lot for students, especially as you mentioned, as they're making selections about 10th grade, 11th-grade courses, 12th-grade courses, where I usually take it with families is saying take the most rigorous course load in which you can have two things happen: you can be successful academically you can get the grade you're proud of, and you can find some enjoyment in those courses.
I would hate to see a student take an advanced, say humanities course and find out they really would much prefer to take another science elective, even if they don't have the advanced course available to them. So it's the most rigorous set of courses in which you can find success and some happiness I think is the best advice and to Bert's good point, yeah because not doing well in the hardest curriculum you can take is not going to open college options nor is taking simply the very basic courses at a place that is fairly rigorous to get into.
BERT: The other thing I'll add to that too, Peter. Rob’s absolutely right, but also not every high school has AP curriculum, not every high school has IB curriculum, so that's the other question that students and families typically ask: “my high school doesn't offer [this class], am I going to be penalized because I don't have access to AP courses?” and certainly we would not, you know, that is not the case. We are aware of students applying from X high school…what was available at that school for that student, how much are they challenging themselves within the availability of courses. So you do some prep work yourselves before you look at the actual candidate to understand the learning environment from which they're coming.
Bringing context into application reading - 12:00
PETER: And the schools the high schools help you with that a little bit don't they? What kind of information are you looking at to give you that context?
ROB: Typically they give us school profiles which tell us about their curriculum and other points of context: the communities they serve, where students go, what they tend to do after graduation, to again give us a sense of what's the college-going culture, what's the rigor…and what I noticed several years ago was school districts and independent schools starting to tell us “we've limited the number of advanced courses our students can take because we think there's a healthy balance between taking a rigorous load and a load which simply is mind-numbing and soul-crushing if I can be a bit hyperbolic”…just because your school offers 12 AP courses, does not mean you should take them all.
PETER: Well of course not, and so Rob, I guess that means that you and your staff are spending some time really matching that profile of information you get from the high school with what you see on the transcript to see how the student is taking advantage of what's made available to her in her classrooms.
ROB: Sure, well, let me back up and then actually have Bert give you the more specific Penn State answer because we also want to be transparent with your listeners that might imagine we're sitting together at University Park on snowy days reading every single application with a pencil in our hand, and it's a bit more mechanical at Penn State…but in my other experiences, absolutely we're thinking about all of those things as we're going through, but Bert, I think for us in terms of helping the audience understand what a Penn State does and the other public universities at which I worked how does this all factor into our evaluation processes…
BERT: So yeah, it's a great point, Rob. I think that many of the institutions that Rob and I mentioned at the beginning of the conversation where we formally worked, yes, I sat down with Manila folders and kind of a score sheet, and that kind of thing and did a full read of a students application file. At Penn State, with over 100,000 undergraduate applications each cycle we would need an army of staff to do that type of a thorough read of every application. So that doesn't happen for all of 100,000 plus applications that we receive, so that being said there are definitely – again referring back to my earlier comments – buckets of applicants where that does happen, international applicants as an example, will get a very thorough read by our evaluators, many students who are applying directly to one of our Commonwealth campuses get more of a thorough read from the admissions staff, but at University Park where the bulk of the students applying are first-year applicants, there is a bit of a more mechanical kind of process. Earlier, you referenced, Peter a quantitative kind of review where we're looking at the academic record, that's pretty much it. So depending upon the type of applicants, and depending upon the campus and program to which they are applying, the type of review an application gets differs.
Choosing courses that are challenging for you - 15:25
PETER: So as we're trying to make sense of rigor and performance in a student’s record, again this is a question that you probably get fairly often: “do I really need to take another language class in my senior year? I've already satisfied my graduation requirement in language at my school or I satisfied the math requirement to graduate in my school through my junior year. Do I need to do this now?” I'll share with you a response that I give to students, and I'll see what you think about this. My response tends to be: “the harder it is to get into a school, the more important your senior year is as the determining credential, so you want to build to a crescendo at the end rather than feeling like your junior year was the hump you've cleared and now you can just kind of swim away easily.” Am I off base or am I close on that, Rob?
ROB: I think you're right on point Peter, and that's been my experience that the more competitive for admission, the more likely the institution is aspiring to enroll a class that's not just meeting the minimums, but pushing themselves a little bit beyond…for two reasons: first, we want to make sure people are well prepared, and preparation includes that you have the same knowledge that nearly everybody else sitting around you in class has…AND, all of our colleges would like to believe – and I think this is true in almost every case – that we are attracting students who are intellectually curious and do want to take advantage of the myriad of opportunities. One of the reasons I came to Penn State is for students who have aspiration's to be highly involved and really sample one of the largest academic menus in the world. Penn State is full of fantastic options, but the other thing that I think about it, you know, we did some research recently at Penn State about our math requirement…and the common math preparation, we don't require calculus for example at Penn State, but we do have large STEM programs, large engineering college, and Bert, can you remind me, we were surprised how many students actually have calculus coming into Penn State.
BERT: Yeah so, for the purposes of math placement testing for the new student orientation, first-year onboarding, and that kind of thing, and so we did some data digging into the data about first-year students enrolling at Penn State and how many were presenting high school calculus within their high school academic record…and I forget the exact number but it was half or more of first-year students enrolling at University Park – I want to say it was close to 60% – I don't remember the exact number, but it was more than half of first-year students enrolling at University Park presented high school calculus…and you know keeping in mind that a large portion of those students was enrolling in the liberal arts or were enrolling in Health and Human development…academic colleges that did not require that level of math preparation so I'll echo everything that Rob said. Rob has a great way of articulating, kind of these very philosophical kind of points of view. When I talk to students and families regarding their, you know Peter you had said you know “I've taken my three years of math should I take it in my senior year?” My answer is always yes, always yes. Now, do you have to take calculus? No, I don't think you need calculus, but what the reason is for me is much more practical. You don't know what degree you're gonna graduate with from Penn State or whatever institution it is that you're looking to attend, and so if right now, maybe you're not thinking engineering maybe you're not thinking you know Information Sciences or whatever, but you could wind up there, you don't know, and if you do wind up there you don't want to be rusty in your math you don't wanna have lost a year of progression because math is an example of a curriculum that builds upon itself…you take algebra one which then, algebra 2 follows that, and geometry and trigonometry, etc. So I always encourage students to continue that math curriculum in their senior year. I think that many times students are…they're kind of interested in perhaps a little bit of “senioritis” and I always joke that you know “intro to underwater basket weaving” in your senior year ,that's a great elective but just make sure you're taking the academic core courses too.
The academic core - 19:53
PETER: What are those academic core? Can you help us with the core you're looking at?
BERT: The things that we're looking at – and I think most colleges and universities are looking at – are your English, Math, Social studies, Science, and a world language. The world languages is usually the wild card of the bunch. In my experience, different institutions are going to have different requirements, or not, for number of years of preparation in a world language. At Penn State, if a student has zero units of world language in high school they'll be admissible to the University, however they'll be deficient, and so they'll have to make up those units as a Penn State student depending upon the program of study they choose. It's a very convoluted process, so it's I always tell students take at least two years of the same world language in high school, I recommend 3 just so that they're not going to be deficient in that requirement once they enroll at Penn State. The other thing I always kind of – just as an aside mention to students – is American Sign Language does count at Penn State as a world language, so you have that option as well. I know many students are interested in ASL as a high school course.
PETER: Rob, I'd like to kind of shift to your former experiences, as well, in places like Cornell and Bucknell and Muhlenberg where sure you're looking at candidates in a slightly different manner, but back to the course selections…when you have a student who says: “I am taking all the language that my school has to offer. Can I just take a study hall, can I get an early release from school, can I take the underwater basket weaving that Bert talked about?” or what's going to serve that student best when the student’s applying to a very selective institution – taking the road of lesser challenge or finding a new challenge?
ROB: That's a great way to put it Peter, and I would opt for taking a different challenge…doing something different. I've seen, for example, students who…maybe they're at moderately resourced high school, and they take their three years of a world language and they find out that that's all that's offered, and then they switch over and they take another world language from that high school, even if they're starting with course one just to keep their curiosity up and to keep the load somewhat rigorous, I think that's a really good way to go. I also really respected the point Bert just offered – that if you're looking at an institution that is broad in its curriculum, you are likely, one: going to have to continue to take courses in subjects aside from what you're narrowly focusing on for major, so best keep those skills up whether it's qualitative skills, like reading, writing, interpreting materials, or quantitative skills in science and mathematics…so the point erase before I think is still one of the operative ones…we would like to think at very selective institutions were enrolling people with curiosity, and that curiosity is not just limited to one or two core subjects. So until people say they run out of course is entire, we might push back and say there are other courses where there are dual enrollments, or nowadays there even cyber opportunities to either do high school courses through a cyber school or to take dual enrollment courses as remote learning…though I realize the era we're living in right now, I want to be the last person to tell people they have to take more remote courses.
PETER: When you see that a student has chosen the remote course, what does that say to you as an admission evaluator about that student? The student’s exhausted the curriculum within the school and goes beyond this maybe even does something on a college campus – what does that say to you about that student?
ROB: It says to me they are willing to take the academic challenge when likely they have to face some friction to do it. In other words, they are demonstrating, just by taking the course, before we even talk about the performance the student has that they're willing to explore options that are not as convenient as simply sitting across from a school counselor and saying “Yep, I'll take another one of…the oh what's that elective...I'll take that” because dual enrollment courses going to a college campus or another school building that takes work and energy and often it can be a little scary too because for a lot of dual enrollment students this will be their first experience on a college campus setting with college students or reading college textbooks and I have to give props for people who just fight through that anxiety, let alone take on the challenging work of the other 16 weeks of the semester aside from just being brave enough to take that course and show up for the first day.
PETER: It does take courage I think to do work through an academic program in high school to its completion I think that there are a lot of young people who get to a certain point and they start to look for easier routes through their curriculum without realizing the implications those choices might have on their actual competitiveness as they apply to different colleges, so I think your point is well taken there.
ROB: Right, and if Peter, I can raise one other point. One thing I want to make sure the listeners who may be at schools that are not particularly well-resourced, where literally it is possible for a high-achieving student to take every course that they can, I do know students that…I went to college with who did have that issue…that they would literally exhaust their curriculum all three years of high school and they would take all three years and then be out of options, just for an example…but I want your listeners to be comfortable with the idea of a balance between taking the most rigorous course load even at the expense of part-time employment, family commitments and know that admissions readers do understand at some point you've got commitments that also have to be attended to, and sometimes you're going to have to say I can't take everything because it's just physically possible that there may also be other commitments that you're making. We'd love to learn about them in the application, so make sure to let us know if you're caring for family members, if you have a part-time job that you need to have, for sure, and other commitments let us know about those things so we can understand your whole life in context and we can understand your academic record as it balances with the other responsibilities in your life.
PETER: I think that's a great point to kind of wrap on here is, that do the best you can take courses that make sense to you, commit yourself to doing as well as you can, and then I think actually choose colleges that will value for what you've done to that those are the schools that look at your body of work and say you're ready for us and recognize also that there are factors in life, i.e. a pandemic, that can influence the way you perform, and make sure that you acknowledge or address those things in your application…because as much as admission officers are nice guys – and I surely appreciate Rob and Bert for being nice guys with us today –they can't guess accurately on all things on your application, so give him a hand with that.
This has been wonderful fellows I appreciate your taking some time to help us understand the admission process from the inside here particularly admission officers look at curriculum choices that the students are making, preparing for the next year or so of high school. I am certain that those who were listening or going to find this to be useful thank you so much again and good luck to you in your work as you continue the recruitment it then state but will look forward to having folks back for more conversations about the college-going process in the coming weeks.