How Colleges Judge Your High School Course Load

Credit: Chris Teare, Forbes (view original source)

A young man visiting Drew University wanted to know what courses he should take his Junior year of high school. In fact, he was so curious that I received an email delineating his likely selections just a few hours later. His questions and follow-up show admirable curiosity, and he is not alone in wanting some answers, so here’s my take on how colleges evaluate your high school course selections.

First, look at the curricular menu and order protein. Colleges ask, “Did the student take the most challenging program that is available and appropriate for his or her abilities and interests?” The young man with whom I spoke attends a wonderful independent school that teaches courses in Modules that do not align well with practices such as the Advanced Placement (AP) program of the College Board. I assured him that he would not be judged adversely for failing to take courses that his school does not offer. Students are evaluated in the context of their schools. The key document is the School Profile; it is the Menu. If your school offers APs, International Baccalaureate (IB) courses or Honors sections, it behooves you to enroll in the ones that are most appropriate to your abilities and interests.

Second, the matter of “appropriate” is important.  To pursue the metaphor, dietary restrictions may apply: certain areas may not enable you to be at your best.  When you can, pick what’s truly good for you.  If you love the humanities, order up the most challenging English, history, and foreign language your school has to offer.  On the other hand, if math and science are topics that inspire you and feed your brain, head up the steepest slopes you can find in those disciplines.  While doing so, maintain a balanced diet, because you are still growing intellectually.  There is a reason why college courses are nicknamed “Physics for Poets”: even the English majors need to know how and why the apple fell from the tree.  Colleges commonly look to be sure you have taken what I have long called “The Five Basic Food Groups”: English, math, history, science, foreign language.  Do those five for four years, the ones that you truly love at the highest level, and you will impress most colleges.

Third, the question “Should I risk a lower grade in the tougher class, or get a higher grade in the less-demanding class?” has to do with the level of competition of admission at the colleges you are considering.  A college with any degree of selectivity wants to see you challenge yourself.  It is the only way it can be sure you can do demanding work.  At such places, your application is Dead On Arrival with a soft program.  It may also be taken off life support for poor performance, but if you can earn a B+ overall in a challenging program and offer the college something it truly values outside the classroom that other students do not have on their resumes, you can go a lot of places, including some of the very most selective institutions in the land.

Fourth, don’t do this stuff just to impress people who read applications; do it to learn the most you can.  What is the point of getting out of bed every morning to make other people happy?  In the seven schools where I have worked, the toughest classes were where students learned the most.  If you actually want an education, not just a decal for the family car, you will have an interest in where you can learn a lot.  A natural byproduct of that search, the meta-message of your quest, is that you are genuinely curious.  You can distinguish yourself in this process by showing that you simply want to know more at the end of each and every day.

Fifth, if you are applying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts program in music, theater or the visual arts—especially at a conservatory or art institute—you may want your answer to be close to “None of the Above” when it comes to a traditional distribution requirements, because you will want your program to be heavily laden with the art form that is your medium of choice and forego the balanced curricular diet.  If you are so inclined, just be sure to check carefully with your counselor and the institutions to which you intend to apply, because many still want to see a relatively broad-based high school program before allowing students to become intensely focused and specialized at the next level.

Finally for now, when in doubt, ask the older students who the best teachers in your school are.  I am not aware of a Rate My Professor website for high school students to use; however, word of mouth remains of great value—whether communicated these days in texts, Instagram posts or other means.  When older students describe where they learned the most, pay attention.  Then sign up to do the same.  Work hard in such classes, impress those teachers, ask for their recommendations, and your college results will largely take care of themselves.

After three decades in secondary education in the United States, Caribbean and Europe, Chris Teare is now Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Drew University in Madison, NJ.