High School Course Selection: Plan, Balance, and Tell Your Story

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One of the most critical and yet often least-considered choices you make in high school is your annual selection of classes. Through 8th grade, your classes have mostly been decided for you, but with the freedom and independence of high school comes the pressure of starting to determine your own academic pathway.

Some students float through high school, taking only what interests them and fulfills the credits required to graduate.

Other students commit themselves to the most grueling set of honors and AP classes available, because they have heard that “colleges like you to take hard classes.”

Like so many things in life, it’s probably most effective to aim for somewhere in the middle of this range of trajectories. But before we think about what classes to take, let’s set a standard for how you make your choices. High School course selection is never One Size Fits All.

If you are the floating student, your guide is your graduation requirements.

If you are the AP-crazy student, your guide is what you believe colleges seek.

Instead, what do you seek? What do you want to learn about? And how can you pursue those ideas while also preparing your transcript for college and fulfilling your graduation requirements? Here are three handy rules to use when choosing classes each year.

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1) Have a Four-Year Plan.

High school is a marathon, not a sprint. When you eventually prepare your college applications, you will include what is called your “transcript.” The transcript includes every course you have taken in high school and the grade you received for each of them. It’s like all of your report cards combined on one page.

So envision the four years. If you are a strong math student or considering a college pathway that requires solid math skills such as engineering or business, you probably want to get to Calculus by at least your senior year. Here is how that could look:

9th grade: Geometry
10th grade: Algebra 2/Trigonometry
11th grade: Pre-Calculus
12th grade: AP Calculus

But this pathway assumes that you have taken Algebra in 8th grade. What if your middle school did not offer Algebra? You can still get to Calculus by senior year, but you’ll probably need to take a course over one summer. The best choice is probably Geometry, the summer after freshman year, so you can get caught up as quickly as possible.

If you are keeping the four-year plan in mind, you can make choices early on so that you stay on course for your larger goals.

2) Choose Rigor AND Excellence. In Other Words, Choose Balance.

The most frequently asked college planning question is, “Is it better to have an A in an on-level course or a B in an Honors Course?”

And the answer that counselors love to give is, “It’s better to have an A in an honors course.”

Which is not very helpful.

We know, we get it.

The point we are making is two-fold. Yes, colleges want to see you challenge yourself. But they also want you to take courses that are appropriate to your interests, abilities, and learning style so that you can maintain excellence in them. You want to push yourself just enough to ensure that you work hard, learn new things, and engage new parts of your brain. But you don’t want to overload on higher level courses that cause your grades to plummet.

This desire to pile on advanced courses drives so much of the anxiety I see in high school students. And ya know what? Anxiety gets in the way of learning. It also gets in the way of sleeping, of growing, and of having healthy relationships. Anxiety gets in the way of a lot of what you want to do. Each of us is far more effective when we find a learning environment and pace that encourages us to try hard, sweat a little, and take risks, but in which we also are still able to find success.

Do you know why universities care that students take AP classes? They care because they believe that the classes prepare you for the independent learning you will be required to do when you are in college. Part of that is learning about balance and about you starting to manage your own time and health alongside your grades.

A few years ago, researchers at the University of North Carolina did a really interesting study to investigate how AP classes impact your ability to feel successful on campus. They discovered something I find fascinating.

If you take an AP course (or a similar IB course or Dual-Enrollment course), the data suggests that you will have a slightly higher GPA during your freshman year in college.

If you take two such courses, your GPA rises a little bit more. Same for three courses, four courses, and five courses. But once you hit five AP or IB courses in all of high school, the impact doesn’t keep growing. Taking six, eight or ten AP courses does not make you any more likely to be successful at the college level.

Which brings me to my final point in choosing classes.

3) Think about your transcript as a story.

Every transcript tells a story. What story should yours tell?

When admissions officers look at your high school transcript, they’re looking for a few things. Certainly, they look at your grades. They look at your rigor to see how much you have taken risks and challenged yourself.

They also look at your growth. Were your freshman year grades a little weaker, but as you grew through high school, perhaps you have developed better study habits and your grades have turned upwards?

And finally, they look at your choices to see if they can get a glimpse into who you are as both a student and a person.

Maybe you took every math, STEM, and computer science course your school offered, and you took a visual art class each year. Just with that piece of information, I now have a sense of a creative and computational mind.

Maybe you love history, and every time you had a chance to take an elective, you jumped into a history course from a different era or a different part of the world.

Always considered becoming a doctor? Your transcript should demonstrate a commitment to taking lab science classes, growing your skills for the challenging college-level courses ahead.

If you spend time thinking about what you like, what classes you excel in, and what questions you would like answers to, some of your course selection should become clear. So yes, consider rigor, consider GPA, and consider honors classes. But first and foremost, consider yourself. What choices will help you learn more, grow in knowledge, maintain healthy habits, and bring you further on the road of your own educational journey?

Katy Dunn

Director of Educational Planning

Katy Dunn has more than fifteen years of experience educating and advising thousands of students as a teacher, counselor, and administrator throughout the DC metropolitan region. The primary lesson she has learned along the way is that each student needs and deserves a focused educational plan, designed to maximize attention and opportunity while minimizing unhealthful stress.

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