The Importance of Course Selection When Applying to College

Today, your children face more course options in high school than a family ordering dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. When the majority of us attended high school, we had fewer selections and our path was pretty much selected for us.

Times have changed! Your course selection may now make or break your admission chances and if done properly it could reduce your costs. So, what do you need to know?

The most important thing:

Your son or daughter’s academic pace and maturity level are personal choices. Some students are compelled to run forward and others create a pace that is right for them. Always embrace your child’s needs first and remember college is all about fit for your student and pocketbook.

Course rigor…Fit, Fit, Fit

Make sure your student takes classes that fit their abilities. Courses should be challenging without being overwhelming.

Your son or daughter may argue for the easiest path, so they receive higher grades, but this may backfire during the college admissionsions process.  Students assume colleges do not know what a school offers but high school counselors typically submit a school report to colleges with a student’s transcript. This report usually lists classes that the high school offers and their difficulty level.

Make sure they are being challenged!

Honors Classes

Honors classes may be offered by the high school (often in 9th and 10th grades) to provide more challenge and in-depth examination of a topic. Honors coursework is not standardized and can vary immensely from school to school. Students should only take an honors class in a subject they are prepared for and/or are extremely motivated to do well in.

  • Challenges a student who may become bored in the standard class in an area in which they already excel.
  • Shows the college that a student is striving for harder classes.
  • Can be a substitute for a student that may not be ready for an AP class and wants to demonstrate rigor.
  • Colleges do not reward honors courses with earned credit, so no potential to save on college.
  • Their GPA will suffer if they get a low grade because they were not prepared. Honors courses may not be weighted like AP courses. So, a “C” will be 2 points (on a 4-point scale) and will negatively affect their GPA. A “C” in an AP class will earn 3 points—the same as a “B” in a standard class.

Advanced Placement (AP)

AP courses were created by the College Board, and are offered by your high school as an approximate “college level” course. They are taught at a faster pace (more like college), and students need to be academically ready for the rigor and faster pace. Every AP course culminates in an optional fee-based final exam that’s graded on a score of 1 to 5.

  • Admission officials like to see AP courses especially at selective colleges.
  • Achieving a high exam grade (3, 4, or 5) may exempt you from taking the entry level class in that topic in college. For example, achieving a 5 in AP Psychology could equal four semesters of college Psychology 101. This can provide a student with the ability to accelerate their learning, saving money with fewer requirements to graduate.
  • AP courses may help students prepare for the rigor of college classes.
  • AP courses are often weighted by the high school when calculating a student’s GPA. Instead of earning 4 points for an A, an AP student would earn 5 points on a 4-point scale.  Many in-state scholarship programs calculate GPA by removing the AP scale so understand how a in-state program weights GPA.
  • Any potential for use of the course in college is dependent on the exam! If a student is not a good test taker, sick, or not well-prepared by their teacher, scoring a 3, 4, or 5 will be a challenge.
  • Do not assume every college accepts AP coursework for earned credit. Some may only if the exam score was a 4 or 5. Taking the AP classes may help a student get in, but they may not apply the credit. Check with a school before applying.
  • Many parents force students into AP courses hoping it will help their admissions chance.  Know your student and only take APs when a student is ready.

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate® (IB) program was created as an advanced educational option for students. The IB Diploma is earned by following a specific series of courses in every subject during 11th and 12th grades. Exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 7 with 7 being the highest. Students can take coursework on the diploma path or just individual IB classes.

  • Colleges reward college credit for higher level IB courses where a student achieved a certain grade level. Here is an example from University of Georgia.
  • The “international” nature of the diploma encourages a global outlook
  • High school grades are typically weighted when calculating the GPA.
  • The most competitive universities will expect high scores across all six subjects (english, math, science, language, the arts, and humanities). Students must perform well in all of them.

College Coursework

Dual enrollment is gaining in popularity given potential earn transcripted college credit at their local universities. Some high schools are also offering these college courses within the walls of the high school as well.

  • Students may get to experience the wider spectrum of college classes available.
  • It gives students the real experience with what a college class is like.
  • College credit can be earned without having to rely on a final exam grade.
  • Colleges reviewing a student’s application will note the more challenging rigor demonstrated.
  • Some students find the pace of a college class easier than the accelerated pace of an AP course.
  • Not every college accepts transferred credits. Be sure to seek out those colleges that do in your college search.
  • The college application process may need to be closely monitored to ensure proper credit is given for the college classes a student has taken (a college transcript should be sent to colleges with the application).

Other Options

Internships, marketing programs (like DECA), STEM, other career academies, career technology schools, service learning, and ROTC are just a few of the additional options available to high school students today.

  • Students get more interesting experience broadening their perspective.
  • Students can gain real career knowledge by exploring their interests.
  • These types of activities can broaden and applicants  picture.
  • Certifications can be earned for real job experience.
  • Allows students to explore and preview potential majors before committing a few years of their college lives to them.
  • These tend not to save on the costs of college. However, colleges will be highly interested in the programs and these types of real world experiences make a college applicant stand out.

What’s next?

You need to understand all the options available to your child. By starting to plan in their freshman or sophomore year, you will allow them to increase their options and maybe lower your college costs.


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