High School Course Selection

Andrea van NiekerkBy Andrea van Niekerk|04/01/2022|6 Minutes

As an admission officer at a very selective college, perhaps the most common question I had to field was this: “Will colleges care more about my grades or about the rigor of my course load?” At colleges such as Brown, with ludicrously low admit rates, the answer was easy – they care about both.

At this time of year when you might have to choose your courses for the next year, that answer can feel painfully inadequate. It seems to suggest that every student who does not attain rigor and performance in equal measure must not work hard enough. Its glibness does not account for the student with a huge curriculum of Mathematics courses struggling with the more interpretative nuance of a History class.  Or for the one who revels in the beauty of an English poetry class, yet wrestles with limited success in a Spanish language class.

Unfortunately, “selective” means that admission officers will have many more accomplished students to choose from in their applicant pool than they will have space for. So of course they will want to rely on every reasonably objective measure of academic achievement and preparation to sort between countless very deserving students, such as grades and courses. That means looking at whether a student chose AP Calculus or Statistics; AP Biology instead of Anatomy; APUSH instead of a semester on International Relations. And once they have sorted out the strongest academic candidates, they can move on to those more subjective means of evaluation, such as activities and essays.

Remember that if you are applying to very selective colleges, not just the Dartmouths and Dukes but also those with admit rates below 20 or 25%, the applicant pool does not resemble your high school class with its broad range of kids – from the classmate with the average record to the kid whose parents pray he gets into any college! Instead the applicant pool that you have chosen to be in is mostly full of those kids who think, given their scores, grades and courses, that they have a shot at that low admit rate! So if you hope to be a strong candidate in such an applicant pool, don’t choose your courses based simply on your school’s graduation requirement, an easy A, or even an overly narrow academic focus. Keep in mind the choices of others who will be applying alongside you to those very selective liberal arts colleges whose mission, after all, is to encourage breadth of education.

This is not meant to be an unpleasantly competitive exercise, just a realistic reminder that selective admission is comparative. If you decide not to do a rigorous math course because you don’t much care for Mathematics, or drop your foreign language because it is not required for graduation, or avoid a History class because last year’s bored you, then you are making choices that have consequences.

Moreover, I believe that liberal arts colleges are right to care – a lot! – about your courses in high school.  Unless you are attending a vocational training school for students who will opt for jobs rather than college after graduation, you should be investing in a broad program of learning. Don’t limit yourself to the things you like, think you are good at, or even just to the teachers you admire. In reality, you do not know yet what it is that you need to know. You do not know yet whether, as a History major in college, you will need the quantitative and computing skills that many modern historians now call on in their research.  You do not know yet whether, as a Computer Science major interested in solving important problems, you will need knowledge of human behavior and history, of political systems or economic reasoning, to find the solutions you will be looking for.

So what does this mean, or not mean, as you make decisions about your courses for next year?

  • Work hard to do well – hard work can be stressful, but that does not make it unhealthy!
  • Take on the most challenging curriculum in which you, by dint of such hard work and dedication, can do well.
  • But if you know, from a brutally honest self-assessment, that you are going to achieve a bad grade in a very challenging class in spite of dedicated work, then know that it is not the right course for you. This is about learning, not about martyrdom for the sake of AP overload!
  • Do not sacrifice your physical and mental health in pursuit of admission to a status college – it is so not worth it.
  • And set aside your assumptions about what you might major in, and instead aspire to the broadest education you can in high school. This is the best preparation for whatever you encounter in college.