During my eight years working in selective college admissions, the question I got asked most often was, “Is it better to get an A in a standard-level class or a B in an AP-level class?” The most selective colleges and universities will give it to you straight and tell you that the answer is actually Secret Option C: get an A in an AP class. It’s easy to laugh the question off (and I admit that it can come off short-sighted), but the question belies a deeper, more important consideration in the holistic application review process: the rigor of your high school curriculum.
The most heavily-weighted aspect of your application is your high school academic program—the classes that you chose to take. It’s even more important than your GPA. Grades are very important, but the problem with GPAs for admissions officers is that there are hundreds of thousands of high schools across the world, all with different grading scales and curricula. Some high schools calculate a weighted GPA, and some do not. I’ve seen GPAs on a 4.0 scale, 5.0, 10.0, and even 100-points. I’ve seen high schools that provide written narrative evaluations in place of GPAs. “A” at one school does not represent the same thing as an “A” from another school. (Check out this blog post from the University of Virginia which shares some real life admissions examples about GPAs and curriculums).
That’s why I tell my students that their transcript is so much more than a collection of grades represented by a numerical GPA. It also tells the story behind that number—how you explored your interests, how you grew in your abilities, and how you challenged yourself along the way. Choosing your classes is also a chance for you to tell that story. So here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when considering your curriculum:
Fulfill high school graduation requirements
This may sound obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing: the most important benchmark to meet when curating your high school curriculum is to ensure it satisfies your high school’s graduation requirements. I’ve never seen a school that does not require four years of English; outside of that, the requirements can really vary. It is often some combination of 2-3 years each of social studies, math, and science. Some schools have a foreign language requirement (often at least two years). Some high schools have requirements for art, religious, or diversity and inclusion fulfillments, too. Make sure you’re paying attention to what your school’s graduation requirements are, so that you can meet (and possibly even exceed!) them.
Capitalize on what you love
High school, like college, is a great time to explore academic interests you have outside of the core requirements. The number of electives a high school offers will vary, but if your school offers classes in a nontraditional (or less traditional) subject area that you’ve always been curious about, try it out! If you’re interested in pursuing medicine in college and your high school has an anatomy & physiology class, that could be a great way to explore that interest (at the very least, it’ll teach you the difference between the tibia and the fibula, which I still have not mastered). If you love writing and your school offers an elective poetry workshop, grab the opportunity to improve your writing skills. If you’re more into math, join the Math Club and gather other mathletes to work on problem sets together at lunch. Each of those choices contributes an important chapter to your academic story.
Consider your college list
The major(s) that you apply to—and, to some extent, the institutions themselves—may also influence your high school course selection. If you’re applying to engineering programs, you’ll likely need to take calculus in high school, or even AP Calculus if it was offered. Courses related to your intended college major can also help the admissions committee understand your interest and motivation in a given subject. A prospective anthropology major who took an Intro to Anthropology class at their local community college, a prospective pre-med student who took a medical terminology class in high school, or future art major who took additional visual art classes (including AP Studio Art, if offered)—they’re each demonstrating to colleges a legitimate interest in the subject they’re wanting to major in. And that story is bigger than just the grades they earned in those classes.
Challenge yourself appropriately
Challenging yourself looks different for every student. It always depends on not just academic strengths and weaknesses, but also what your school offers. That’s why colleges evaluate your transcript within the context of what was available to you at your school. You won’t be penalized for taking zero AP classes if your high school didn’t offer any of them. On the other end of the spectrum, if your high school offers the IB Diploma program, a highly selective school would want to see that you’ve pursued the Diploma curriculum. When it comes to challenging yourself, you know better than anyone else what is going to be the best option for you. But here’s a good place to start no matter what your interest or academic strength: always take the most challenging courses available within the subjects you enjoy the most.
Take a deep interest to a reasonable extreme
If you’re really interested in a subject and your school runs out of offerings, it might be a good opportunity to overcome these curricular limitations to challenge yourself further. Did you max out your high school’s Spanish curriculum with AP Spanish Language and Culture junior year? Maybe in senior year you design an independent study with your Spanish teacher, or enroll in a college-level class nearby. Does your high school offer AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism but not Mechanics? Maybe you self-study the Mechanics coursework and sit for the exam. Going this above-and-beyond isn’t something most students choose or need to do. But if you’re academically strong, if you have the interest in the subject, and if you might be hoping to attend one of the most selective colleges, taking deep interest to a reasonable extreme is a great addition to your academic story.
You are more than your GPA represents. Make your course planning decisions based on academic requirements and your interests. Focus more on your effort in the course than on how that effort calculates into a GPA formula. And remember that every opportunity to feed an academic interest is another interesting chapter for your academic story.
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