Choose Classes That Excite You

Is your child in the throes of choosing their classes for next year? This can be a thorny process because students want to select classes that not only meet their high school graduation requirements, but which will also help situate them well when they apply to college. The “easy” part of the selection process is making sure they satisfy their high school’s requirements. While this varies from state to state (and sometimes from school district to school district), with independent schools having criteria of their own, most schools require four years of English and math and two to three years of social studies, science and foreign language. Many also have arts, health and gym requirements. But what a school requires for graduation is not necessarily the same thing as what colleges want in their applicants. Admissions deans at selective colleges and universities are honest and transparent when they say that students should take four years of all their core disciplines – English, math, social studies, science and foreign language.

Ask any admissions officer and they will tell you that the single most important part of a student’s college application is their “academic record,” often referred to as their “transcript.” So, what exactly does that mean? The transcript is a student’s grades in context. Admissions officers will look at the classes the student took, their rigor, and grade trends over time. Colleges are able to evaluate the strength of a student’s academic record because they receive information from the high school guidance counselor, either in the form of a letter or school report, or both, which explains the classes that are offered at the high school, the distribution of grades in those classes, and the student’s performance in comparison to their classmates.

Colleges care about a student’s academic record because the best predictor of success in college is performance in high school. Colleges want to make sure the students they admit will be poised to succeed on campus. Students who successfully push themselves in high school and engage with their learning can be expected to bring that same curiosity to college.

Students, of course, need to select classes that interest them. A student who intends to apply to an engineering or other STEM program will want to make sure they have taken the highest level of math their high school offers and at least chemistry and physics. By contrast, a prospective English major may want to supplement their required curriculum with a creative writing or journalism course.

Students also need to balance how rigorous a curriculum they choose with the other demands on their time. Students who are involved in time-consuming extracurricular activities or have jobs need to make sure they will have enough hours in the day to complete their homework . . . they should not enroll in rigorous classes if they will not be able to thrive academically.  Students should by no means, however, sacrifice activities just so they take can take advanced classes, because colleges also like to admit students who are also involved outside of the classroom.

It’s all a bit of a balancing act, and what works for one student may not work for another. Above all, students should enjoy high school and use it as a time to explore what excites them, because excitement yields engagement, and engagement yields success – and students who are successful in high school are setting themselves up for success in college.