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The Best Classes to Take in High School

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Reuben Stern in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream and read A Guide to High School Classes for more info. 

 

What’s Covered:

 

 

Your class schedule is critical to your success in the admissions process. Admissions officers assess factors like the rigor of your curriculum, whether your choices correlate to your strengths, goals, and passions, and more. Read on to learn how to build a cohesive, impressive course schedule.

 

Factors to Consider When Choosing Courses

 

How Rigorous is Your Schedule?

 

Students who intend to apply to highly selective colleges will try to load up with classes that are more challenging than the standard college prep classes. In most cases, when you have the choice, you should opt for the most challenging version available to you —  for example, you would probably want to take an AP over an honors version. If you’re not sure you can earn at least a B in an AP course, however, that would be an instance when you should take the less challenging alternative.

 

Another example is AP Calculus AB or BC — the highest-level AP math courses. It’s usually better to take the higher level (BC) if they’re both available to you, since it’s faster paced and more comprehensive than AB. It’s also worth noting that regardless of intended major, all students aiming to go to competitive colleges should take calculus at some level.

 

What are Your Interests or Career and Academic Goals?

 

Your core schedule should reflect your interests, your intended major, and your career aspirations. If, for instance, you’re hoping to be a writer, you should certainly take AP Language and Literature.

 

You should always focus on what genuinely interests and excites you — while, of course, ensuring that you’re fulfilling your requirements. Remember that if you opt for courses that you find engaging, you’re more likely to put effort into them and, ultimately, succeed in them. 

 

Consider your own strengths and weaknesses as well. You want to understand your own level of comfort and experience with the subject material. This will usually determine how well you do and how hard you try in the course — although that’s not a hard and fast rule.

 

You can also make something into an interest. You can turn a weakness into a strength, but you’ll need to think about this in advance. There are also numerous free online resources and tutors you can hire to help you.

 

You also want to show yourself as a multidimensional, well-rounded student. For example, a prospective STEM major should still have humanities courses to demonstrate their multiple interests. And every course ends up making you a better human being. That’s what learning is all about — interacting with the world.

 

If you don’t have a major in mind just yet, you can absolutely just take whatever AP classes you’re interested in at the moment.

 

Will You Earn College Credit?

 

You should always check the AP policies at your prospective colleges because some schools will give credit for a three and above on the AP exams, while others require a four or a five. Some, especially highly selective colleges, might not offer any credit. 

 

So, before you go out of your way to take an AP class and a subject — particularly in a subject you don’t particularly like — you should be aware of what’s at stake. 

 

What Courses are Available at Your High School?

 

Don’t worry too much if your high school doesn’t offer certain advanced courses. Admissions officers are aware of what’s available at different schools and will understand if you’re unable to take an AP course because your high school doesn’t have it in its catalog. You will be evaluated in the context of your particular school and class. 

 

However, if your school does offer APs and you don’t pursue them — particularly ones in your strongest subject areas — that will reflect poorly on you. You should aim to take as rigorous a curriculum as your high school allows, taking into account, of course, the additional factors we’re discussing here. 

 

You can also self-study APs or pursue dual enrollment courses at a local community college or four-year institution, but admissions committees will not expect you to do so.

 

What Does the Rest of Your Schedule Look Like?

 

Be careful that you don’t overextend yourself. It’s better to do well in a few APs than take more and do poorly in all of them. 

 

You should also prioritize your mental health. Overextending yourself in overly difficult courses can be detrimental to your well-being and potentially affect your academic performance. Coping with high school stress and anxiety can be difficult, so make sure to take care of yourself first and foremost.

 

How Classes Affect Admissions

 

So, how do your classes affect your chances of getting into top colleges?

 

First, you need to understand the academic index (AI). This is a tool that top colleges use to assess your application, assigning a single numerical score to evaluate academic components like your GPA and test scores.

 

The rigor of your schedule will factor into the academic index, so you should make sure you’re taking plenty of APs and other challenging courses. Know that many competitive applicants will have taken all the APs their schools have to offer, and your transcript will need to be strong. Remember, too, that colleges will know the opportunities that are available to you, and this will affect your AI as well.

 

While AP scores will not be weighted heavily, they can show how well you absorbed the material in challenging courses and could raise red flags if there are disparities between your scores and the grades you received in the corresponding courses. On the other hand, high scores on multiple AP exams could earn you an AP Scholars award, which will reflect well on your application.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

Should you use your AP tests or classes to place out of certain courses?

 

That depends on you as a student, your college of choice, and the curriculum at the college. For example, with AP Calculus, it’s probably not necessary to take another calculus course in college. 

 

Also, bear in mind that some colleges simply don’t accept AP credit whatsoever.

 

Should I give up extracurricular activities to take AP classes?

 

Make sure that the classes you’re planning to take fit in with your extracurriculars, as well as your family commitments, work responsibilities, and other factors. Don’t sacrifice the things that bring you joy just to build the most impressive course schedule you possibly can.

 

Remember, too, that many APs require you to have fulfilled prerequisite courses or have prerequisite skills. Take to your guidance counselor to learn more about your high school requirements and what’s offered at the colleges that interest you.

 

At my school, students take an average of 14 AP exams, but there are many students who take 16 APs. Is it worth it to take the two extra APs?

 

It depends. Are you looking to get into a top 10 school? Are you looking to get into a top five school? In that case, especially if a lot of students from your school are applying to those colleges, then it might be worth it because ultimately you want to stand out from the other students at your high school.

 

A college will look at your transcript and look at the school you come from and say, “I know that this school offers 16 APs and 10% of the students take these 16 APs. And they’re all applying to Harvard. There’s a student who only took 14 of them.”

 

If my school offers both AP and dual enrollment, would it be better for me to focus on one or the other?

 

Taking a mix is a good idea, but it depends on your school and AP availability. If the dual enrollment option is with a community college, then AP courses are probably the better option. However, you may opt to pursue more challenging courses in topics you have exhausted or for which AP classes are unavailable at your school.

 

Do the AP Scholar and AP distinction awards still exist? I heard they might be discontinued.

 

These awards do exist. You should check with the College Board on the specifics on the awards and criteria for selection.

 

How Does Your Course Schedule Compare?

 

Your course schedule does have an enormous impact on admissions. CollegeVine’s free chancing engine will give you insight into how the classes you take and other factors will affect your admissions decisions at hundreds of colleges across the United States — taking into account rigor, correlation to your strengths and interests, and more. We’ll also give you tips on how to improve your class schedule and overall profile to improve your chance of acceptance.


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At CollegeVine, experts host weekly livestreams on college admissions topics, including application advice, essay writing tips, and college information sessions. To register or check out more livestreams, visit www.collegevine.com/livestreams.