I am Taking Harder Classes This Year. What if My Grades Go Down?
As you progress through high school, your courses should, logically, become more complex and challenging. In addition, many high schools offer a variety of program tracks or levels of course offerings. Not only should your classes become harder and your schedule, perhaps, more demanding, but you may have the opportunity to take courses at an accelerated, honors, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) level. These offerings are generally considered more difficult and will demand more work on your part. You may also find it more difficult to earn a high grade in one of these courses. Faced with these choices, you may be asking yourself, "Now that I'm taking harder classes, what if my grades go down?"
What's the best thing to do?
The most selective colleges in the United States look for students who have challenged themselves and succeeded in the most difficult curriculum their schools had to offer. If you are trying to get into one of these colleges, the college admissions officer will be looking carefully at the curriculum offered at your school and determining whether or not you pursued a rigorous program of studies. The admissions officer will be favorably impressed if you took the most difficult courses and if you did well in those courses. From the perspective of the most selective schools, it's much better to take the honors or AP courses and to get an A! However, they will also consider your school's profile, including course offerings and the grading system. In many cases, a strong B in an advanced level class will be more impressive to admissions personnel than an A in a weaker course.
What courses should I take in high school to increase my chances of college admission?
Unless you already know exactly which college you will attend, you should take a program that will allow you to keep all of your college options open. In other words, a program that is demanding and comprehensive would be the best choice. You will find that a high school experience that includes the following distribution of courses will put you in a good position for admission to more selective and very selective colleges and universities.
4 years English with a strong writing component
4 years College preparatory mathematics including Algebra, Geometry and
2 units of advanced mathematics
3-4 years Foreign language
3 years Laboratory science (biology, chemistry, physics)
3 years History/Social Studies
Additional work in the arts and humanities is also a positive.
If you already have a list of preferred colleges, look at their admission materials to see whether or not they have specific course requirements. If they do, make sure that your experience matches their expectations.
I am in a really good school, one that is more competitive than most other schools. They don't give a lot of A's. Does this hurt my chances?
College admissions officers spend a lot of time becoming familiar with high schools. Each year they visit hundreds of schools in an effort to learn more about what that school has to offer, what kind of students it enrolls and how the school grades its students. As a result, they usually know which schools have "tough" grading standards and which schools have a more competitive student body.
To help the college understand the school, secondary schools supply college admissions offices with a variety of things including class ranks, grade distributions and what colleges its graduates attend. This information makes it possible for the college to evaluate the student's performance in the proper context. For example, an A average at a school in which 50% of the students hold an A average is not the same as an A average at a school where only 5% of the students earn an A average.
The colleges I am considering aren't really all that selective. Should I still take a hard program in high school?
The opportunity to attend a selective college isn't the most important reason to take a challenging high school program. No matter what kind of college you eventually attend, you will probably want to do well. A rigorous high school preparation greatly improves your chances of being successful in college.
In the end, pursuing a rigorous program in high school keeps your college choice options open and better prepares you to undertake collegiate level study. Students who write well, read comprehensively, think clearly and grasp mathematical reasoning do well in college. You develop the skills in high school. You enhance them in college.