Once upon a time…
We had a student who was deciding whether or not to take AP Chemistry.
To advise her, we asked her two questions.
The first question we asked was: “If you take AP Chemistry, will you have to work incredibly hard, sacrificing hours of sleep, just to get a B?”
The student answered yes.
The second question we asked was: “If you take AP Chemistry, and you have to work that hard to get just a B, will your grades in other classes likely drop, as well?”
The student answered yes again.
We told her not to take AP Chemistry.
The moral of the story is to challenge yourself, but do not exceed your limits. Find the right balance between pushing beyond your comfort zone and thriving and growing intellectually.
From a personal educational perspective…
Why would you want your student to put themselves in a position to be overworked and unnecessarily discouraged? A central goal of high school is to foster intellectual curiosity and a love of learning. Not getting enough sleep, struggling more than ever before, giving up personally meaningful extracurricular pursuits in the name of homework—these are not recipes for personal growth or academic success.
When selecting courses, however, there are a few basic guidelines that students, especially those applying to selective colleges should keep in mind.
- Both junior and senior classes should be rigorous. Students should take the highest level classes they can do well in.
- Students should take all core classes in all four years of high school. When we say core classes, we mean not only English, history, math, and science, but also a foreign language.
- For foreign languages, students should avoid switching languages. German 1, Spanish 1, Latin 1, and French 1 do not add up to four years of a foreign language.
- In the sciences, students should take chemistry, biology, and physics. AP Environmental Science should not be considered to be a core science class.
- In math courses, students should proceed toward Calculus first. Some students may not reach Calculus, depending on their particular math pathway. College admissions officers will not consider Economics to be a math course.
The key question: is this student growing academically?
Throughout their high school careers, are students showing a trajectory of challenging themselves with more rigor each year while continuing to get grades that match their personal standards of excellence? These are the questions that admissions officers are asking. These are the questions that should be guiding students on their journeys, too. Grades and rigor are overwhelmingly the most important factors for college admissions officers, but the key to personal growth, college success, and educational fulfillment is balance.
Course Selection FAQ
My student’s school doesn’t offer AP or IB classes or caps the number they can take. How can they show rigor on their transcript?
When a student submits their application, it will be accompanied by a document called a School Report. This document lists the courses available as well as any policies restricting courses students can take. Admissions counselors will read and evaluate transcripts based on this context.
If your school’s classes match up to the AP curriculum, you can also take the AP test itself by signing up with CollegeBoard.
How can I choose between one class or another at the same level of rigor?
Students can reach out to classmates, peers, and older siblings to see what they can find out about a given teacher or course. How do workload, teaching style, and personality vary?
Not all AP courses are created equal. AP Environmental Science, AP Economics, and AP Psychology are not considered to be core classes. Students should only consider taking AP Statistics as a math class if they have already exhausted their school’s math track.
If both courses are equivalent (like two core subjects or two electives), students should take the one that leans towards their personal interests or goals for college.
How much do high-level STEM courses matter?
For students who want to study majors in engineering, computer science, or other STEM topics, reaching high levels of math and science can be important. For instance, admissions officers may want applicants to have taken calculus in high school.
For students who are majoring in other fields, these courses still demonstrate academic rigor.