Can You Be An Engineer Without Taking AP Physics: How the Classes You Take Affect Your Chances at Admission
It’s no secret that the grades you earn in your classes matter – a lot – for college admissions. It’s also common knowledge that colleges want you to challenge yourself by taking AP or IB courses. But does it matter how you challenge yourself? That is, can the subjects of the courses you take affect your chances at admission? If you have aspirations of being a biologist, but you have a humanities heavy high school course load, are you doomed to fail? In this blog post, we’ll uncover how the classes you choose to take affect your chances at admission.
What is a specialized academic profile?
A specialized academic profile refers to a strategically chosen set of classes that establish skill or interest in a certain subject. For example, a student interested in majoring in Comparative Literature could build an academic profile in high school by taking AP English Literature, AP English Language, a creative writing workshop, and a poetry class at their local community college. By demonstrating not only interest, but also mastery of a certain subject area, you can signal to colleges that you will make a valuable contribution to their academic departments.
How important is developing a specialized academic profile for college admissions?
While making an effort to undertake coursework related to your potential major can boost your application, the truth is your academic profile will most likely not make or break whether you will be accepted to a school. Adcoms primarily consider the difficulty of your classes, not their subject matter, when evaluating your transcript.
This is because colleges recognize the difficulty of deciding on a major (and in some cases, a career) so early in life. Especially for students with an affinity for multiple subjects, being forced to choose one as young as 14 or 15 and commit for the rest of high school, let alone college and adulthood, is a daunting prospect. To expect every student who wishes to study political science to have taken a full schedule of government and social studies classes starting from their freshman year isn’t realistic.
In addition, plenty of students enter college unsure of their major, or apply as one major and change their mind a month after arriving on campus. For these students, the subject areas of the classes they took in school is a poor indicator of their ability to succeed in college, so it’s illogical for adcoms to make their admissions decision upon this basis.
That being said, there are some fields for which demonstrating some interest beforehand can make a difference, particularly labor-intensive majors that require lots of credits and prerequisites, like engineering or any premed track. Unlike some liberal arts or social sciences majors, those intending to study engineering, for example, require so many credits for graduation that it’s difficult for them to apply undeclared and make their decision later on, or spend their first few semesters trying out electives and then deciding on a major, like many others can.
These majors require a decisive interest in the subject matter upon admission, so students entering into them often choose to take AP courses in high school and knock some prerequisites out of the way, or at least gain familiarity with the subject matter.
So to answer the titular question: you can probably be an engineer without taking AP Physics, but you might wish you had earned those credits in your 30-person high school class instead of your 300-person college lecture.
So How Can I Choose Classes That Will Maximize my Chance of Acceptance?
- Maintain Balance and a Sense of Well-Roundedness
While developing a specialized academic profile can give you an edge in admissions, especially for more rigorous majors, it’s still important to maintain balance in your courseload. We’ve written before on the importance of being generally well-rounded while still displaying particular skill in one area, and that principle applies to the classes you choose to take as well.
Though actual admissions requirements vary from school to school, to have a serious shot at most competitive public and private colleges, you will have needed to take 4 (3 in some cases) years of each core subject: science, math, english, and social studies. This shows adcoms that even if you are particularly skilled in biology or economics, you have the academic chops to succeed elsewhere as well.
This isn’t just about proving that you’re smart; even careers that seem very specialized, like medicine, require a variety of interdisciplinary skills. Most premed programs require students to take at least one writing course, as effective communication skills are necessary to be a successful doctor. Social sciences programs, like economics or political science, typically require some knowledge of calculus or statistics. Those majoring in Writing or Rhetoric need to understand symbolic logic, a very analytic field, in order to effectively construct and reason through arguments. In a society that increasingly values adaptability, showing you’re well-rounded is more important than you might think.
- Specialize When You Can
You don’t have to have your college and career plans finalized to have an idea of what direction you’d like to go in. If you have a general interest in mathematics, but you’re not sure if you want a career in finance or computer science, you can still take a mathematics heavy course load in high school. Demonstrating your analytical skills with challenging courses like AP Statistics or AP Calculus communicates to admissions committees that you have the capacity to be successful in an analytical major, regardless of whether you haven’t decided exactly which one yet.
If you are totally confident in your career path or major, then you should definitely work towards developing a specialized academic profile. If you can show off your talent in your field to colleges and supplement your academic success with extracurricular involvement in the same area, you can clearly demonstrate the value you’d bring to their institutions.
- Choose Classes You’ll Do Well In
This may go without saying, but it’s important to remember that more important than the classes you take is how you perform in them. Don’t enroll in classes that you know you won’t do well in; while colleges laud challenging yourself and engaging with different fields to an extent, if you’re pulling Cs in AP Art History when you really want to be a doctor, you should probably reconsider your course load.
Even if you don’t know what you’d like to study, you probably have some idea of what you’re good at. You may not be set on pursuing a career in that direction, but it’s a smart idea to play to your strengths and take classes in areas you know you’ll succeed in. A high level of academic performance will matter more to an admissions committee than anything else, and like we said previously, you always have the first couple years of college to figure things out.
Surprisingly, Extracurriculars Matter More than Classes
The main benefit of developing an academic profile is demonstrating interest in your intended field to admissions committees. However, when trying to gauge your talent in or passion for a field, chances are adcoms will look more at your extracurricular activities than your transcript.
While you’re required to sit in school for 8 hours a day and take classes, extracurricular activities are entirely voluntary. If you spend 10 hours a week devoting yourself to your school’s Mock Trial team, that’s a stronger indicator of your interest in studying law than whether or not you decided to take AP Government. If you’re worried that you haven’t taken enough coursework related to your course of study, don’t worry; strong extracurricular involvement can easily compensate for a less specialized course load.
In summary, the courses you take can matter – but at the end of the day, they’re not the most important part of your application. If you know for sure what you plan to study, we encourage you to take as many relevant classes as possible. You may even consider taking more advanced classes at a local community college!
However, if you’re still not totally decided, don’t worry. College admissions officers don’t expect you to have everything figured out from the start, and as long as you’re still challenging yourself by taking AP, IB, and/or Honors courses, you don’t need to agonize over course selection.
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