High School Course Selection

It is the time of year when high school students in the US and elsewhere in the world are required to choose their courses for the next year. Many sophomore students might choose to dive into AP courses; others might want to opt for the International Baccalaureate or choose subjects for A Levels or their section of the French Bac.

Looming over their choices is the knowledge that American colleges care not only about your results but also how you achieved those results. Admission officers know well that for many students getting a great grade in the AP Government or the IB Mathematical Studies course is likely not quite as tough as doing so in the AP US History or IB Mathematics HL one.

College admission is not supposed to be a contest for martyrdom, though, so why would colleges care which of these courses you take? For one thing, they want to see that you take your education seriously, that you are not just going through the required motions. After all, your mode in high school is likely to remain thus in college! They want to see that you are willing to extend yourself intellectually for the sake of learning; that you have the ability to stretch yourself academically; and that you have the preparation to do well in college.

That does not mean always choosing the toughest courses available to you, though. If you choose the most demanding curriculum to impress colleges but you grades suffer, you will hurt yourself in the application process. If you jump into AP Physics C, for example, without a prior AP Physics class, you risk being overwhelmed and your results will show it. So choose the most rigorous course for which you are well prepared enough that you can, with hard work, do well. If you sacrifice sleep and good health to do well, it was definitely not the right choice for you either!

The trickier question is whether your interest in a subject – or lack thereof – should affect your choices. Students might want to take AP Environmental Science because they are interested in environmentalism or the French Bac L because they love literature. They might opt for a second year of Physics rather than Biology because the subject fascinates them.

But every counselor has also heard students say, “I am not going to study STEM, so why should I do a tough math course?” or, “I want to study physics so why bother with history?” This is not an attitude for which admission officers at selective liberal arts colleges (including the Arts and Sciences college within larger universities) will have much tolerance. At these colleges you are probably not being admitted to a specific field (in the UK, students do apply directly to a specific course of study). So admission officers do not want to see that you specialized and narrowed your intellectual vision early. After all, at college you will not only have to do required general education courses in some of those subjects, but hopefully you will also discover new ideas and subjects you do not yet know to exist!

Moreover, the world is rapidly changing and you might well not really know what it is you need to know. Think, for example, how an earlier generation who studied Political Science might be really surprised at how many of our political debates now revolve around the use of computers – social media platforms and algorithms – and require a certain scientific literacy! An earlier president of Brown University called the liberal arts – from History and Economics to Mathematics and Physics – an education “for appointments not yet made.” Don’t make short-term choices in high school that will shape the kind of appointments for which you are prepared as an adult!

By Andrea van Niekerk, College Goals’ Counselor