In College Admissions, there is an ongoing struggle with trying to relay information concerning a high school applicant’s course selection. How do you relay the idea to students that colleges want you to challenge yourself in preparation for college classes, but not overdo their coursework load to the detriment of their work/play balance and overall mental health. One of the main reasons that this is such a tough discussion is due to the differences in individual students and how they are able to handle challenging coursework. For every student who is able to handle a full AP/IB course load there is another student who gets in over their head with their junior/senior schedule. There is no one right answer for how challenging a student’s course work should be, just like there is no one right answer for any number of life’s choices. If a parent calls and asks us to sketch out the schedule their student should take in high school, a college admissions officer is no real knowledge of the student and family dynamic has no real insight into what courses that individual student should take. We can talk about the state or institutional base minimums, and what previous students have taken, but that only paints a very broad stroke on the canvas. As such, here is what we can give as far as suggestions and guidelines. To be honest, no admissions person can say what your individual student should take as far as HS courses, as this decision needs a great deal more information than we would have from one email/phone call.
Academically speaking, we suggest that students challenge themselves to the best of their ability while still having strong grades in high school. We do not want a student to take 5 AP courses in one year, and come out having 3 C’s and 2 D’s. A student needs to be successful in their classes. But a 4.00 GPA while taking some of the most basic courses offered at the high school is not a good option either, as the strong grades would indicate that the student could challenge themselves with more advanced classes and better prepare them for the next academic level. We want a student who is willing to challenge themselves and still do well in their courses. When we give this advice though, we also try and couch it within the scope of the academic interests and individual strengths of the student. Generally, if the student is looking at engineering/STEM majors, then advanced math and science classes are key to prepare yourself for the beginning courses in these areas, with an understanding that there still needs to be a strong base of English courses and possibly the other core areas. If you are looking within the social sciences areas, you will want to make sure you have taken advanced work in English, economics, history/psychology and many times statistics or foreign languages). But again, this is a very broad brush stroke, as each student is different. When we give out data points on the average number of AP or DE courses, this is not an expectation for our entering class. We look at what is available, what is taken, and how four years of coursework play out over the five core academic areas. If you are shooting for taking X number of AP courses because of an average number, you are aiming at the wrong target.
As far as a good balance between a student’s academic and personal lives, it is again up to the student and family to determine the tipping point. Students should challenge themselves with a rigorous course schedule that is manageable while also having time for family, friends, activities and a social life. It does not do anyone any good (student, family, high school or college) for a student to become so overwhelmed with their coursework that their academic and personal lives begin to collapse. At the same time, students and parents need to be aware that the opposite problem can occur when their personal/social lives so dominate their days that it negatively impacts their academics, which then spirals into a different (but just as bad) collapse of their world. If your sixth or seventh activity/sport is negatively impacting a student’s coursework, the reality is that the student and family need to reassess the co-curricular imbalance. Admissions offices understand that not all learning comes from the classroom, and we want to see that potential students are able to interact with other people, help other people and learn from other people. We are looking for applicants who will be able to make an impact on our college campus both in and out of class. We also want to make sure students can handle that same balancing act of academics and personal life when they are on our college campuses.
I hope this helps a little of this very difficult question.