For most of you, it’s time to choose which courses you will take in your final year of high school. While it might be tempting to dial it back academically, you really can’t if you aspire to get into the college of your dreams.
College admissions officers use a three-prong analysis to evaluate your academic record: what courses you take (curriculum), how demanding the courses are (rigor), and how you do in those courses (performance).
Your senior year will count in that evaluation, even for those of you who apply and get in early. Admissions officers get periodic reports as you progress through senior year, and admission will be contingent on your completing the courses you showed you were taking on your application and getting grades consistent with your prior performance (e.g. if you have a 4.1 GPA going into senior year, they expect you to finish senior year with pretty much a 4.1 GPA).
Here are some guidelines for how to choose your courses for senior year.
1. Curriculum: You must take English and Math and at least 3 other academic solids.
Even though there are now multiple college prep curricula out there, colleges are steadfast in their expectations of the course work that high school graduates will have completed (and knowledge they will have acquired) before they begin college.
Four years of English and Math are non-negotiable. If you have already taken every English and Math class you can at your high school, take a course at a local community college or nearby university. If that isn’t an option, take a for-credit online course.
Along with English and Math, you should take at least 3 other academic solids. An academic solid is a course in one of these “core areas” of study:
Note that you can double up on English and Math if you are really engaged by those subjects. For example, you could take AP English and a Journalism elective.
You’ll see that music, visual arts, and performing arts are not listed as academic solids. That’s because colleges are split about whether they count those as academic solids. So if you want to make choices that give you the most options, you don’t include those in your five core courses.
Luckily, most of you get to take at least 6 courses, so you can add music, visual arts, or performing arts into your schedule without a problem.
For those of you who are intending to pursue music, visual arts, or performing arts as your major in college or your career, you may find it hard to take the courses you need to take if you do not count music, visual arts or performing arts as academic solids. In that case, contact the colleges where you will be applying and get their advice about what courses you should take in your senior year — all admissions officers are happy to give this advice and would much rather help you now than deny you later!
A note for international students: High school curricula vary greatly worldwide, and U.S. college admissions officers understand that. Generally, the curriculum mandated by your home country will be acceptable to U.S. colleges, but you should consult with colleges where you are planning to apply just to make sure.
2. Rigor: Create an overall schedule that either maintains your level of rigor or takes your rigor up a notch.
The rigor of your schedule is determined by the “level” of the courses you are taking.
Your high school probably has some way of distinguishing the courses that are harder and more academically demanding. Courses that are more advanced in particular subjects are considered more rigorous — so Spanish V is harder than Spanish IV. Accelerated, honors, AP, and IB courses are also considered more rigorous.
So if you are taking 3 courses this year that are more rigorous, then you want to take at least 3 courses next year that are also more rigorous. It is even better if you can take your rigor up a notch and manage to include 4 courses that are more rigorous.
Why do admissions officers care about rigor? Because they want students who are ambitious learners and who can manage the increased rigor of college courses when they arrive.
3. Performance: Choose courses where you can maintain or improve your grades.
Many, if not most, of you put more emphasis on this guideline than you should. You are on the quest for the easy A in the hopes of bumping up your GPA in your final year.
But here’s the reality: A high GPA earned by avoiding academic solids or reducing rigor won’t help you at all. Admissions officers aren’t fooled. They know that an A in Beginning Guitar or French for Travelers isn’t the same as an A in Honors Physics.
That being said, feel free to use this guideline as a tiebreaker when it comes to making choices that are equal in terms of the first two guidelines. For example, let’s say you are choosing between AP Statistics or AP Computer Science. You think you are going to nail it in AP Statistics, but will struggle in AP Computer Science. Then by all means, take AP Statistics.
One thing you should definitely take into consideration is the interaction between rigor and performance. Should you take the more rigorous course if you will get a lower grade? For example, should you take AP Physics and get a B, or take regular Physics and get an A?
Our rule for this is that you take the more rigorous course as long as your grade is likely to be no more than one grade lower than your grade in the regular course. A B is one grade lower than an A, so take the more rigorous course. But if your grade is likely to be a C in the more rigorous course and an A in the regular course, then take the regular course.
Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.