When it comes to your courses, choose wisely

July 26, 2013

“It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” This age-old maxim applies not just to sports, but to high school and to college admissions as well.  Many students would be surprised to discover that their strength of curriculum, or the types of courses in which they enroll during high school, is often times viewed as more important in the admissions process than grade point average or standardized test performance.  If prospective applicants hope to win admission into competitive, four-year colleges, they need to allot course selection the attention it deserves and consider adopting the following strategies:

1. Enroll in a fourth year of math and science. Although most high schools only require that students complete three years of science and math to graduate, competitive colleges like to see a fourth year in these subjects.  Opting for math and science during your senior year demonstrates to an admissions office that you are intellectually motivated and willing to negotiate the rigors of a college curriculum.  It may also improve your prospects for college success, at least according to a widely cited U.S. Department of Education study:

“The highest level of mathematics reached in high school continues to be a key marker in precollegiate momentum with the tipping point now firmly above Algebra II.  The world has gone quantitative: business, geography, criminal justice, history, allied health fields – a full range of disciplines and job tasks tells students why math requirements are not just some abstract school exercise.”

2. Consider adding an AP/IB course, or two. Taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses during high school signals to your prospective colleges that you are enrolled in a challenging course of study, and thus prepared for college-level work.  In a nationwide survey, The National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) discovered that 75 percent of all colleges considered AP/IB performance as an important factor in the admissions process, and that 94 percent of selective colleges, in particular, viewed strength of curriculum as “considerably important.”

3. Enroll in challenging and/or relevant electives. Instead of registering for a cooking or sewing class, enroll in journalism, psychology, French or some other academic course that will challenge you and demonstrate to your prospective schools that you are passionate about learning.  Although usually not as rigorous as some core academic courses (in math, science, history, etc), electives play an important role in the admissions process. If chosen carefully, they can help develop your talents and allow you to further exhibit your interest in a particular subject area. If you are an aspiring architect, for example, choosing an elective in engineering or CAD (computer-aided-design) will help you to develop a portfolio of related work (now required by most architecture schools)  and capture the attention of an admissions officer or faculty member who is seeking applicants committed to this field.

4. Finally, know your limits, and don’t take on too much. Adding an AP or IB course is fine, but if you are enrolled in two AP courses your junior year and opt for five such courses your senior year, you’re likely to become overwhelmed and earn less than satisfactory grades.  Tom Reason, Director of Admission at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently expressed his views on the importance of striking a balance when it comes to course rigor:  “We don’t expect students to take every AP or IB course available. We do expect students to have made thoughtful choices that exemplify full preparation for college. Rigorous course work without performance in that course work is not what we’re after and will not be fruitful.” Reason’s views echo the views of most other college admission officers, and reveal the need for all students to reflect upon their own academic limits and to then challenge themselves accordingly.  In doing so, students will not only become happier and more productive learners, they will become better college applicants.