#The High School Experience
How should students think about course selection?

Frequently, students and parents will ask whether it is “better for college admissions” to take an honors/AP class and get a B or to take a regular level class and get an A.

There is an old joke in admissions circles that the answer is to “take the honors/AP class…and get an A.”

This, of course, is not helpful advice.  At best, it’s a funny quip, but at worst, it’s a joke that seems to reinforce this notion that students need to do – and then thrive in – absolutely everything if they want to be competitive at the most selective universities.

When students and parents contact us to ask our advice on how to choose classes for the upcoming school year, we like using a bit of an extreme case as a kind of fable to make our overall point.

Once upon a time…

We had a straight-A student who was deciding whether to take 5 AP or 6 AP courses the following year. That sixth AP she was unsure about taking was AP Chemistry.

To advise her, we asked her two questions.

The first question we asked was this: “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 this: “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 to only take five AP classes and not to take AP Chemistry.

The moral of the story: challenge yourself, but do not exceed your limits. Find the right balance between pushing beyond your comfort zone and thriving and growing intellectually.

The moral of the story: challenge yourself, but do not exceed your limits. Find the right balance between pushing beyond your comfort zone and thriving and growing intellectually. If you answered yes to the first question but no to the second, then challenge yourself!
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 academic growth or success.

That is not to say students should not push themselves. We do not grow from complacency. And getting one lower grade is not a bad thing. Struggling in one class for the first time ever may teach a student grit, persistence, organization, and other invaluable skills. Many times, we have heard from students that their hardest class and worst grade in a given year was actually their favorite subject and challenged them so much that they want to learn more.

Do not be afraid of a lower grade. Do not be afraid of working harder or having to ask a teacher for help. But at the same time, do not be afraid to recognize when a course load may be too much. Honest self-assessments are crucial to growth, and ultimately success, too.

From a college admissions perspective…

Let’s say that the student elected to take AP Chemistry and all of a sudden their grades started dropping. What would you as an admissions officer think?

At best, the student was trying to push themselves but misjudged what they could handle and did not make the necessary adjustments, leading the admissions officer to wonder if that student would be equipped to handle the rigorous academics at their university.

At worst…the student got lazy or distracted and no longer prioritized academics.

Do not make an admissions officer wonder. When choosing classes, be self-reflective and self-critical. Understand that opting out of that one extra AP class is not going to be the make or break difference between whether you are accepted or denied from a given university.

The key question: is this student growing academically?

Over the course of their high school career, are they showing a trajectory of challenging themselves with more rigor each yeah 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.

Admissions officers will prefer students who may be taking one fewer AP course but are getting their best grades yet than the student who exceeds their limits and has worse grades than they had in 9th and 10th grade.

Too often, students get it in their heads that they need to take every AP/honors class to get into the most selective universities. And that they need all A’s and that even one B may shatter their lofty college aspirations.

These thoughts are categorically untrue. Grades and rigor are overwhelmingly the most important factors for college admissions officers, but balance is the key for personal growth, educational fulfillment, and college success.