College Advisor - University Admissions Guidance

High School Course Planning

For the purposes of college admission, the most important aspect of a student’s high school experience is summed up in the high school transcript. A principle task of a college admission evaluator is to determine if a student is prepared to engage and manage the academic responsibilities at his particular institution. The type of institution and its level of selectivity determines how academically rigorous the requirements are for application.  The 23 California state universities are designed, at minimum, for students at the 2.0 GPA level and higher, while the University ​of California system is more selective, designed for students with a minimum of 3.0 GPA and higher. Private institutions like University of San Francisco, USC, Stanford, Santa Clara University, MIT, Chapman, Brown, Pomona, Harvard, and so forth, each set their own academic requirements and expectations for admission. Schools typically fall into categories of selective, moderately selective and highly selective.

To determine if a candidate meets a school’s level of academic expectation, evaluators school transcript to determine three things:  academic rigor, grades and grade trends. Today, I’ll explore academic rigor because it has the most direct baring upon planning coursework.

Academic rigor directly involves the courses that students enroll in and complete each year in high school. Colleges want to see that students love to learn and, this is best illustrated when students challenge themselves though engaging coursework. American high schools offer 3 – 4 levels of rigor:  college prep, accelerated, Honors and AP or IB (Advanced Placement / International Baccalaureate). College prep is the default level, accelerated courses are only offered at some schools and are viewed as a ramp up to Honors or AP level courses. Honors courses are ones whose curriculum is designed at the district or school level, there is no standardization in the general sense, but these courses are weighted (5 point scale). AP / IB courses are the equivalent of college level and are also weighted on a 5 point scale. They are also standardized, meaning that there are exams students can opt to take at the end of each academic year to demonstrate mastery. These exams are in addition to finals and whose scores can be used in the college admission process.

Each school district, and often schools within a district, as well as private schools, set their own policies regarding how many challenging courses appropriate per year and which year certain courses can be taken based upon the range of capability within their service area. Their goal is to teach to the highest level while also supporting the lowest level. Some schools have view academic restrictions, while others seems to be TOO restrictive, at least in the minds of some students and parents. There are always exceptions, but the regulations are in place to provide safeguards.

From the admissions perspective, it’s important for students to demonstrate the ability to:

 * Transition / adapt to learning framework of high school
* Demonstrate intellectual curiosity / love of learning
* Engage advanced level coursework at a sustained level
* Demonstrate subject comprehension and mastery

Each of these areas can be assessed through the high school transcript. So what classes should families consider? First of all, there is a basic framework for high school graduation and so that dictates what courses are taken each year, but there is also a typical template for each year in school and it is based upon the foundation that is built during 9th grade.

All students need to complete requirements to graduate, but to apply to selective colleges they most complete at minimum:

4 years of math

4 years of English

3 years of science (2 must be lab based)

2.5 years of social science

2 years of a language other than English

1 year of fine arts

Within that framework, students can choose the classes they want, however, when college is the goal, courses must be selected with care. It is not just about taking the most challenging courses offered at school, but rather taking the challenging classes that one is best prepared for and that helps one explore academic subject areas, demonstrate engagement, and demonstrate competency.  If a student knows early that engineering, business, medicine or the humanities are the goal, then choices for English, science, math and social science courses, as well as levels can and should reflect this.

For example, if a student the engineering pathway, then after completing biology (9th) and chemistry (10th), she should take physics in 11th at the most rigorous level she is manage. If a student is interested in the health sciences, physics is less important, but advanced biology or chemistry is vitally important. For the student that seeks business, science is less relevant, but she should continue taking challenging science courses. Finishing high school with at least AP Calc AB is ideal for a potential business major. For the humanities major, however, math is less important. Keep in mind that whenever students are aiming for top tier schools (ranked at top 50 – 75) public or private, they should always plan  to take the most rigorous level courses when their previous performance warrants this.

In summary, course planning course is, on one level very straight forward, but parents must remember, each student is unique, with different strengths, and challenges. Each student develops at a different pace; some need more or fewer resources to discover and achieve their potential. Admission staff need to be able to evaluate a student’s ability to engage academically, sustain interest and perform at a level the would result in satisfactory progress. The bottom line: students must demonstrate that they can do the work.

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