As we head into the thick of application season, one question I find myself getting on an almost daily basis from students is whether they’ve taken a rigorous enough schedule in high school.

My answer? It depends.

Yes, colleges want students who have challenged themselves in high school and taken the most difficult classes offered to them, but many students max out their schedules because of this and leave other areas of their life—and application—to suffer.

For example: I recently spoke with a student who wanted to drop an AP Calculus class just a few weeks into the semester. While I was hesitant at first to give her the “all clear,” it was when she tearfully admitted that her health was suffering, she was losing sleep, and the stress of managing work and multiple AP classes was piling up. For this particular student, dropping the AP class was the right decision—she opted for onlevel calculus instead. For another student, however, I may have said stick with it if that student had simply wanted to drop it because he or shedidn’t like the teacher or the homework took away from social time.

Every student is different. Just because Sally Mae has no extracurricular commitments and can take five AP classes in her senior year doesn’t mean that Joe Hockey can say the same. His after school activities may take up a lot of his free time, and he’s struck a perfect balance for himselfbetween a solid resume and a rigorous course load. Kelly College may also want to take five AP courses each year, but her family commitments or work schedule make it difficult to do the homework and maintain good grades. 

Does any one student have a guaranteed leg up on the others? Not necessarily! Any admissions counselor will tell you that there’s more to the process than simply looking at which classes you took. Colleges look not only at grades, test scores, and academic rigor, but also at extracurricular activities, essays, letters of recommendation, work experience, community service…the list goes on.

What it boils down to is this: when it comes to course selection, colleges look at what is available to you, what you have taken, and how four years of your coursework have played out over your core academic areas.

Have I mentioned the importance of balance yet?

Let this be a warning that there’s no “one size fits all” course schedule. Yours will (and should!) depend on your life circumstances. Challenge yourself to the best of your ability. If you choose to max out your schedule with all AP/Honors/Dual Enrollment classes and your grades tank as a result, that will alarm college admissions officers who now have the impression that you are not prepared to handle the rigor of college. In order to get into college, you must be successful in your classes. Plain and simple. On the other hand, colleges also aren’t looking for students who have skated by and taken only the most basic level classes just so they can hit a 4.0 and have what I call the “easy A’s.” Don’t let your GPA fool you—some colleges even recalculate GPAs to reflect their own weighted scale that they can use to compare applicants from different high schools. Balance, people!

Overwhelmed? This is one benefit of working closely with a counselor. It can be difficult navigating your school’scourse catalog on your own, especially if you have certain colleges in mind and would like to make sure your strategy for getting into them is sound. I field questions like these all the time, and it does often take a bit of thought and careful consideration to help a student achieve his or her perfect schedule.

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