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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

How to Choose the Right High School Classes

Choosing the right high school classes is one of the most important decisions your teen will make on the path the college applications. Not only do high school classes indicate a student’s academic aptitude, but they also reflect a student’s interests and initiative. The classes that your student selects during high school will directly impact their college application. To learn how, don’t miss this post.


Why Are High School Classes Important?


The classes that your student takes in high school are important in a few different ways. First, admissions committees will consider a student’s GPA, and this will be affected by the difficulty of the classes your child selects. Generally, your student should select classes that they can do well in, so that their GPA will be strong. That said, it’s not quite as simple as taking the easiest classes possible to get a 4.0 GPA.


Most high schools weigh GPAs to award higher points for more difficult classes. When a GPA is weighted, AP and IB classes will be worth more than regular classes. Sometimes honors classes are also weighted, depending on the school. This means that an A in an AP or IB class will be worth more than an A in a regular class (usually a 5.0 vs. a 4.0). You can learn more about how a weighted GPA is calculated in our post What is a Weighted GPA? How Do You Calculate It?


Another reason that high school course selection is important to college admissions committees is because it can indicate a student’s interests and areas of specialty. If your student wants to apply to an engineering program, their transcript should show challenging classes in the STEM fields, like AP Physics and AP Calculus BC. If your student wants to apply to a school known for its business programs, classes in economics and politics would be more useful. When students take challenging courses in the areas of their intended major, they show readiness for college-level work in this discipline, and admissions committees notice.


Finally, class choice can showcase your student’s ability to take initiative and rise to challenges. An admissions committee doesn’t want to see straight A’s in easy classes. This might lead them to think that your student doesn’t like challenges. An admissions committee would almost always rather see a B in an advanced class than an A in at the regular class.

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What are the Different Types of High School Classes?


Most high schools offer a combination of rigorous courses to choose from. These are, in order of rising difficulty, college prep (CP), Honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB). Not all high schools offer every one of these tracks, but these are the general terms you might encounter and should understand when it comes time to select courses.


College prep (CP) classes are basic high school courses designed to prepare your student for college level work. These are typically the base-level classes provided at most high schools (non-honors or non-AP/IB), aside from trade or vocational classes. Most students who intend to apply to highly selective colleges will try to load up on more challenging classes, only taking CP courses to meet prerequisites or other requirements, or in a subject area in which students know that they cannot achieve a B or above in a more challenging course.


Honors classes are slightly more advanced than typical CP classes. They are still considered prep for college, but they usually go into the subject matter more deeply and provide a more thorough overview of the topics.


Advanced Placement (AP) classes are yet another step up in terms of difficulty and in depth. Advanced placement classes are a set of standardized courses meant to cover one semester’s worth of college level coursework. These culminate in a formal performance based evaluation or a standardized exam, and students who do well enough may be awarded college credit, or place out of introductory classes in college.


International Baccalaureate (IB) classes are typically the most difficult courses available to high school students, but these are generally less widely available than AP classes. The IB program is international in scope, and earning an IB diploma requires that your student take certain courses and fulfill additional academic and extracurricular obligations.


What If Our High School Doesn’t Offer Honors/AP/IB Classes?


If your student’s school doesn’t offer many AP classes or an IB program — it’s okay! They should just focus on taking the most challenging classes available and doing well in them. College admissions officers are generally familiar with what is offered at each high school and the relative difficulty of the classes, so they will understand if your student couldn’t take AP/IB classes because none were offered. You can read more about this topic in our post, What If My School Doesn’t Offer AP or IB Courses?.


What Do College Admissions Officers Want to See?


College admissions officers are looking at these three factors when they assess your high school coursework:


  • Performance: How well did the applicant do in a specific class? This isn’t only measured by grades, but by any honors achieved in a specific subject area.  


  • Rigor: Did the applicant challenge their abilities with difficult classes? Admissions officers seek students who followed a challenging but appropriate course track. They also like to see increasingly rigorous classes as a student progresses through high school.


  • Trend: Did the applicant continue to select rigorous courses and maintain good grades? Did the student struggle in 9th grade math but go on to improve over the years? Admissions officers look for the applicants that took more challenging courses as the years progressed while maintaining good grades. They also appreciate applicants whose grades improved over time.


Can CollegeVine Help with High School Class Selection?


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.