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High School Academics: Prep and Planning

High school is really the first time in your child’s life where she is given a modicum of academic freedom.  Suddenly, it’s possible to enroll in a Russian history elective or take on the challenge of AP Biology.  Conversely, it’s just as feasible your child might decide to drop French after fulfilling the minimum requirement.  After all, conjugating verbs can grow tiresome.  Of course, your child’s decisions will affect her academic future.  Therefore, you want to make sure you know how to guide your child to ensure her full potential is met.  So, how do you determine the best curriculum for your child’s needs?

HS Graduation Requirements vs. College Entrance Requirements

To begin with, there’s no getting around the fact that every state has set minimum graduation requirements.  As you likely already know, in order to receive a high school diploma, all students must take a certain number of credits in English, math, science (including lab), foreign language and history.  Most states also maintain physical education and arts requirements as well.  Your child’s guidance counselor is well acquainted with the mandatory curriculum and should be able to direct your child accordingly.  Further, said counselor will also obviously know the standard course-load for each respective grade level (i.e. all juniors take a year of U.S. history).

Of course, while it’s important (and necessary) to meet basic requirements, don’t let your child settle for simply meeting the bare minimum.  Many universities actually have a broader set of requirements for applicants than your home state might mandate for high school graduation.  Additionally, colleges won’t be impressed with a schedule that’s rounded out with a handful of study halls.  Instead, encourage your child to go beyond what’s required.  Universities are more likely to take note of a candidate who chose to study a second language or take an environmental science elective.  Moreover, enrolling in an extra class or two might allow your child to discover a new academic passion.

Course Selection

When choosing classes, it’s also important to keep in mind what your child might want to study in college.  After all, it’s beneficial if she can show aptitude and continued interest, especially since some colleges (though definitely not all) ask the applicant to declare her intended major on her applications.  Therefore, if your daughter thinks she might want to go the engineering route, she should load up on math and science courses.  And if your son is destined to be a painter then enrolling in some extra fine arts classes is well advised.

Additionally, another critical element to consider is academic rigor.  Colleges, especially competitive ones, aren’t usually interested in students who are content with taking the easy route.  They seek out applicants who demonstrate drive, determination and intellectual curiosity.  Indeed, admissions officers want students who challenge themselves and who will be able to handle a college curriculum.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should force your child to register for as many honors, advanced placement or IB courses as humanly possible.  While your child shouldn’t be afraid to step up his/her academic game, there’s no need to go overboard.  For example, if you have a kid who struggles with math, enrolling in AP Calculus will likely do more harm than good (both to her GPA and psyche).  Rather, encourage your child to sign up for harder classes in the subjects in which he/she excel.  If you have a student who is a voracious reader with a talent for writing, she should consider honors English or AP Literature.  By pushing herself, your child will have the opportunity to explore the subject matter in greater depth.

Of course, though your child shouldn’t shy away from hard work, you also want to ensure that her courseload affords a healthy work-life balance.  If a student is doggedly studying from the minute the last bell rings to the second she hops into bed, that schedule should likely be reassessed.  Certainly, school work should be challenging. Nonetheless, there should also be time to explore the world and participate in activities outside of the classroom.  

The Big Picture and the High School Transcript

When considering your child’s curriculum, it’s also important to remember that universities consider an entire transcript, not just its latter half.  Therefore, while admissions officers might give more weight to grades received in junior year than those earned during freshman year, they will still consider academic efforts from freshman year onwards.  Besides, all grades affect  GPA.  Help your child start off on the best foot and apply herself from day one.      

Further, admission officers often analyze transcripts to see if they can identify any trends.  Of course, if your child successfully achieves straight  A’s throughout high school she is in great shape.  Similarly, admission officers will also be impressed by a steady rise in grades.  While a bumpy start is certainly not ideal, schools often appreciate those who learn to apply themselves, develop a work ethic and slowly realize their potential.  

However, colleges will be less enthused if they see a transcript that shows either a steady decline or grades that demonstrate an incredible lack of consistency.  Indeed, admissions committees might postulate that these applicants lack drive, determination and discipline.  As a result, they are likely to assume that these are not the kind of undergraduates they want attending their university.

Similarly, admissions officers tend to not look kindly upon students who take classes as “pass/fail.”  It’s simply too easy to view this as a move by a lazy student.  Colleges are unable to gauge how well a student really fared in the class and how much effort was put forth.  After all, the student who turns in “C” quality work passes just the same as the student who hands in “A” quality work.

Just as a personal statement and letters of recommendation tell a story about your child, so too does her transcript.  Though, on the surface, it might appear to only offer objective, quantitative information, there is much more to be gleaned.  Endeavor to make sure it reveals a story your child wants to tell.


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Don Munce