If you are a high school student hoping to attend an elite college, you probably know how important it is to take a rigorous course load. This shows colleges that you are willing to take on challenges and capable of meeting demands of a top-tier academic environment. That means taking Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes—admissions committees expect to see that you are taking a challenging course load with plenty of advanced classes. But what if your school doesn’t offer AP or IB courses?

First, it is important to keep in mind that admissions committees will be evaluating you in the context of your environment. They will have a school report, generally provided by your guidance counselor, detailing what courses are offered at your high school and whether or not you took the most challenging classes available. They will also see how you performed in relation to your classmates, so if you took the highest-level classes available and performed well compared to your peers, colleges will understand that you challenged yourself as much as you could with the options available and still succeeded. Of course, this means you will need to strive to take as challenging a curriculum as your high school allows. You should take plenty of honors courses if they are available and go up to the highest level in core subjects (English, Math, Science, Social Studies/History, and Foreign Language). You should also take electives that emphasize your interests if your school offers them.

Take College Courses

Given that many other applicants applying to top-tier colleges will have taken AP or IB courses, it may not be enough to simply stick with what your high school has to offer if you don’t have the option of taking AP or IB courses. In addition to taking as challenging a curriculum as is available to you within your school, see if you can enroll in additional courses at a local community college. Community colleges typically have extensive course catalogs, and you may be able to enroll in select classes as a high school student. Another advantage to taking community college courses is that some four-year colleges may grant college credit if you do well in them. Check with your guidance counselor to see if your high school has an connections with local community colleges or recommendations for how to proceed with enrolling in courses.

Additionally, many four-year private and public colleges offer continuing education courses available to people of all ages. While you probably won’t receive credit for these courses, and they will likely be ungraded, reaching beyond your high school curriculum to pursue your academic interests will show admissions committees that you are intellectually engaged and want to stimulate yourself further.

Boost Your Extracurricular Activities

Your courses are not the only factors influencing your applications. Participating in extracurricular activities is just as important as taking a rigorous academic course load. So if your school doesn’t offer AP or IB courses, try building a particularly strong extracurricular profile to showcase your talents and interests.

Prestigious summer programs such as TASP for humanities, RSI, MITES, or SSP for science, or Boys/Girls Nation for leadership will show that you are engaged in your interests outside of school. Do a little research to find programs that interest you and can help you hone your particular talents. You could also participate in academic programs, such as Johns Hopkins’s Center for Talented Youth or pre-college programs at various colleges and universities. Attending these summer programs will show admissions committees that you are interested in academics outside of high school and are willing to push yourself to succeed. Another benefit to these programs is that they will give you a taste of what college life is really like, since many of them take place on college campuses.

Achieving honors and awards in your activities, as well as through exams and courses within your high school, can also show colleges that you are capable of meeting rigorous standards and demands. Of course, you can’t necessarily control what awards you receive; however, you can participate in certain activities and sit for various national or statewide tests and exams that will grant you honors if you achieve qualifying scores, such as national language exams. Some of these tests may require your high school’s approval before you can take them, so check with your guidance counselor or teacher in the subject to make sure you are eligible.

Leadership positions will also impress colleges. You may try starting new clubs or running for a leadership position within an existing one to demonstrate your initiative and willingness to take risks.

Extracurricular activities are important for all students applying to college, of course, but if your academic profile is a bit weaker in course rigor, you should strive to make the other areas of your application that much stronger to compensate. For more ideas on what extracurricular activities to choose, check out our posts, “Your Comprehensive Guide to Extracurriculars,” “Your Resume Revamped: Securing Leadership Positions and Perfecting Your Extracurricular Profile,” and “Effective Summer Activities.”

Start an AP or IB Program at Your High School 

AP and IB programs have numerous benefits. They may help you receive college credits if you receive qualifying scores on the exams, they can save you money in college tuition by replacing college courses, and they provide a more stimulating and interesting environment for advanced students.

If your school offers few or no AP or IB classes, you may feel that you have a bit of an Achilles Heel in the admission process. One solution is to try to start a program at your high school.

Before you get started, it is important to keep a few things in mind. First, as a student, you can’t do it alone. In fact, it really depends on your teachers having the knowledge and skills to teach the curriculum and meet the standards set by CollegeBoard and the International Baccalaureate Program. Additionally, your high school may not have the resources to host these programs.

What you can do is make suggestions to the people who do have influence over your school curriculum. Start with a faculty member or school administrator whom you know well. Approach him or her with your idea, and ask whom you should approach next. If the person you ask initially tells you not to proceed for whatever reason, don’t attempt to go above his or her head or be disrespectful in any way; simply present your arguments and idea, and accept that you may not be able to make the change you want. If your teacher or guidance counselor is receptive to the idea, ask for ways you might go about making it happen. You should come armed with plenty of information about the programs and the benefits to them.

For more information about implementing the programs in your high school, visit the respective CollegeBoard and International Baccalaureate pages.

It is important to remember that just because your high school doesn’t offer certain advanced-level classes doesn’t mean you won’t have a shot at top-tier colleges. Admissions committees consider many different factors when evaluating your application, including test scores, extracurricular activities, and essay; course rigor is just one part. That said, you should of course strive to take as demanding a curriculum as you possibly can, and excel in the courses you can take.

Looking for to help to make you college applications stand out? Our personal admissions specialists are here to help.

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine