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An Updated Introductory Guide to Course Selection
Oftentimes, students will struggle with course selection – what kind of courses to take, whether to take Advanced Placement (AP), Honors Level, or College Preparatory Course, so on and so forth. In order to maximize your chances of getting into the best college possible, proper course selection is absolutely essential. According to a 2011 report from the National Association for College Admission Counselors (NACAC), “Strength of Curriculum” (e.g. course selection) was the second most important factor in college admissions, with a weightage of 91.4 out of 100. Picking the correct set of courses for you is of course something to consult your guidance counselor and parents about as well. However, below, we’ve outlined a set of guiding principles to assist you in making your own decisions about which courses to take.
The single most important factor in the college admissions process is your grades (GPA). Thus, when selecting courses, you should do so with an eye on maximizing weighted GPA. Most if not all schools nowadays offer weighting (extra grade points) for AP and Honors courses, and calculate student grades and class rank based on these weighted grades. While the specifics vary, the weightage typically offered by schools averages around 5 points (out of 100) for Honors courses, and 10 points (out of 100) for AP courses – with International Baccalaureate courses receiving similar a grade point bump to AP courses.
You should always be managing your course selection towards weighted GPA, not un-weighted GPA. Even if your school sends transcripts to colleges with un-weighted GPAs listed, college admissions committees will adjust your grades in AP/Honors courses upwards by the same degree anyway before evaluating you for admission. For example, it’s great for you to get a bunch of 100s in CP classes, but not if those 100s come at the expense of a 96 in an Honors level course or a 93 in an AP course. Getting a 100 in a CP course is certainly an impressive accomplishment. But in the eyes of college admissions counselors, it is a less impressive accomplishment than a higher weighted score in an AP or CP class. Now clearly you can’t predict with 100 percent accuracy what your grade will be in any given class, but you can make a reasonable estimate. And your course selection should strongly take that estimate into account.
Now in terms of course selection over the course of your four years in high school, it’s important to balance those two principles – GPA and difficulty of curriculum. Even with a goal of admission into an elite college, at a high school that offers a large selection of AP courses you don’t have to take only AP courses for all four years. It’s okay to have some CP courses (especially foreign language ones) and Honors courses on your transcript so long as you follow one core principle: increase the difficulty of your course load as you progress through high school. Your heaviest course-load should be focused on your junior and senior years, so as to show colleges that you are increasingly challenging yourself as you get older. Ideally, your freshman year you would take 1-2 CP courses and 3-4 Honors courses. Sophomore year you would work in 2-3 AP courses with the remainder Honors, before working your way up to 4-5 AP courses each of your junior and senior years. Of course, every high school is different, and colleges know this — remember that your course-load will be evaluated against what is possible at your specific high school only. So taking 4 AP courses your junior year at a high school that offers 20 APs is quite different from taking 4 AP courses at a high school that offers 4 APs total.
The specific courses you take (AP Psychology vs. AP Economics, AP US History vs. AP US Government and Politics) are not that important unless you are targeting a specialized program or applying for engineering. In the former case, if you are targeting some sort of specialized program such as a business program, an accelerated medical program, or a 5 year co-op Masters program, it makes sense to target your course-load, especially junior and senior year, towards those specific fields. So if you’re looking to get into a 7 year medical program, taking AP Physics/Chemistry/Biology is important, as are AP Environmental Science and AP Psychology. If you’re looking to get into a 5 year Masters program in engineering (or generally a top tier engineering school) – AP Calculus AB and BC are both a must (not to mention you’ll learn math skills that will have value once you get into engineering school), as are AP Physics and AP Chemistry. Adding AP Statistics and AP Computer Science (if offered) is a good way to show your commitment to and passion for the field of engineering.
Overall, course selection is an important and oft-forgotten part of the college admissions process.