Success in the college admissions process is rarely a factor of raw talent. There can be little doubt about the pool of talent from which colleges draw their entering classes. Most students who apply to colleges—including the most highly selective—possess the talent to compete at least minimally in the classrooms at those colleges.
Finding success as an applicant, however, rests more on what you do with the talents you possess than the fact that you have them. In other words, "How do you choose to apply yourself?"
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This question is particularly relevant for high school students as they make course selections. For example, how often have you heard this question: "Is it better to take a course where I know I can get an 'A' or should I take a harder course and risk getting a lower grade?" I hear it frequently—and you might be surprised by my response. It involves in a three-step formula that can serve as a guide in all of your class selections:
1. Step up to courses that present reasonable challenges to you academically.
2. Do as well as you can in those courses.
3. Look for colleges that will value you for what you have achieved in the classroom and for the trajectory of your performance curve.
Admissions officers at selective institutions want to see how you use the curriculum at your disposal to stretch yourself academically; hence, the "step up." Think about your natural learning path. For years, you have been "tracked" academically—exposed to a sequence of courses that were intended to match your level of ability and your preparation to find success in them. What will your course selections reveal to admissions officers with regard to your desire and ability to push yourself in the classroom?
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By taking rigorous courses, you give admissions officers confidence in your ability—and inclination—to take on greater challenges at the next level. That doesn't mean you should register for every high-level course you can get in order to compete for admission. Rather, you need to know your capacity to tackle challenges and make a conscious effort to move to the next logical level of rigor for you in each academic discipline.
Next, do as well as you can in those courses. Having created a scenario of appropriate challenge for yourself, commit yourself to getting the most out of it. Academic rigor in itself is meaningless if it is not met with commensurate performance. "Good enough" won't cut it.
Finally, as you consider college options, look for colleges that will value you for what you have achieved in the classroom. Be discriminating. These won't necessarily be the most highly ranked or prestigious places, but they will be places of quality that recognize your academic talents and progress—and are prepared to invest in your success.
The bottom line with regard to course selections—and your eventual college selections—is this: Do what makes sense for you. Take stock of where you are on your learning path, set your college sights reasonably, and build a strong foundation through your coursework in high school that will propel you into a successful experience in college.