ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE
One of the most often asked questions by college bound students (and their parents) is whether to take easier courses through the high school years as a way of increasing grade point averages and, presumably, enhancing college admission prospects. College counselors hold various opinions on this subject, of course, in part based upon factors at work within the specific high school and its policies regarding weighting of honors courses, etc. In general terms, though, most competitive college admissions officers recommend that every good student accept whatever academic challenges the high school has to offer.
Clearly, it is in the interest of every college admissions office to evaluate every student on the basis of his or her best work. Yet one part of every college application consists of evaluating grades and, when calculated, class rank. The student who takes a lighter load does have the likelihood of earning higher grades with less work – unless the high school adds weight to advanced and honors courses. For example, an A in a regular math courses might be weighted as a 4 on a 4.0 scale, while an A in an honors math class might be weighted as a 4.2. (It would be a great idea for every student with questions in this area to ask the college counseling office whether the high school adds weight to advanced courses, which is the only fair way to reward extra effort.)
Not every course in high school has multiple sections or regular and honors options. Some sequences – Algebra I, Geometry, Alg. II with trig, Math analysis/pre-calculus, etc. – are truly set in stone. Yet there are tremendous differences in syllabi, which can make it difficult for colleges to measure achievement. For example, some schools purchase Algebra textbooks that are actually divided into two sections, the combination of which comprises a full course in Algebra I. For schools with a less rigorous delivery system, these two halves of Algebra I can sometimes be called Algebra I and Algebra II, thereby denying competitive students full access to essential math concepts.
Students who elect to take honors, AP, or other designated advanced course work provide college admissions committees with a fairly accurate sense of which kids are truly at the head of the class. Gifted students usually want to be in advanced placement courses, and high schools should have some way to communicate to colleges which courses need to be considered the most challenging available. At the risk of sounding heretical, this author recommends strongly that parents seize the reins, when necessary, to be sure that their kids’ high school is reporting high achievement to colleges in some coherent way. Is there weighting for advanced courses? Does this weighting affect class rank, where available? Does the college counselor include an individual assessment as part of transcript information to be sent to colleges? Does the high school’s transcript form contain a key to course weighting or honors designation?
In a world where everyone gets a trophy for participation, the notion of achieving academic excellence seems at times to be under attack. Nonetheless, able students need to be rewarded for going beyond the ordinary. By accepting every academic challenge within reach, the successful college bound student is enhancing her position in several ways. She will travel farther in each subject area; she will, therefore, have a more impressive transcript to submit to colleges; she will also be able to apply to more competitive schools; and she will be eligible for more advanced placement standing in the freshman and sophomore years. In the end, the challenges will have been worth the cost.
NB: While these guidelines are important for strong students to adhere to, seniors need to think strategically about these suggestions. For example, if an advanced fall of senior year course is being taught by a notoriously tough teacher in a subject area that is not the student’s strength: think hard. Perhaps dropping down from AP Chemistry to honors, thereby avoiding a C+ or worse (which would lower the GPA and create a black hole in senior year transcript)would be the smart move.
Students planning to apply to leading state universities, whose admissions decisions often hinge significantly on GPA, should make course choice decisions with the highest possible GPA outcome in mind.
Carter P. Reese Informed Educational Solutions
This is the sixth in a series of blogs written for parents of younger students, junior high age or so, who are thinking ahead about college admissions. We firmly believe that planning ahead can yield enormous benefits and reduce anxiety about the transition from high school to college.