Q&A on High School Course Selections

Find out if omitting a high-level math class in your senior year is a mistake.

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Last week's blog post, "3 Steps for Choosing the Right High School Classes," prompted a number of questions that are worth sharing with the wider readership, along with my answers:

Q: I am a guidance counselor in a high school that has a very challenging math curriculum. Some of my students will have completed AP Calculus AB in the junior year and feel satisfied with omitting a math course in the senior year. I have grave concerns about this decision and would appreciate your insight.

These students have the opportunity to take math but won't because they have already "conquered" a high level course. I fear the message they are sending to colleges is not a good one. On the other hand, I don't want to be "Chicken Little," either, as they are taking a college-level curriculum in a majority of the other classes.—Concerned Counselor

A: You raise an issue that is brewing in high schools around the country at this time of year! In considering a response, much depends on where the students in question think they want to compete for admission and what their academic plans might be once enrolled. Generally speaking, your instincts are correct. What you suspect—but they don't know—is the answer is dictated by the competition. The more intense the competition they will enter as college applicants, the more important the higher level of math becomes as a selection criterion.

If these students are not interested in math/science career tracks and they are not targeting most highly selective institutions, they can probably get by in the admissions process without a higher-level math course in the senior year. The absence of the math can otherwise prove to be a fatal flaw at the higher levels of competition.

[Read about AP science and math enrollment surging.]

Q: My eldest child is at an Ivy League school having an exceptional experience so far. My daughter, a junior in high school, is beginning to develop a list of schools to visit this summer. She's a bright young woman, but I'm worried she's not working to the level of rigor as her brother was at the same time. What are her chances of getting into a good school and receiving financial aid?—Worried Parent

A: Your question is a bit unfair to your daughter as it assumes you are using the same metrics to compare her progress—and prospects—with those of her brother. To begin with, she needs to pursue rigor as it relates to her natural learning path—a path that is undoubtedly different from that of her brother. Then, she should identify "good" schools within the context of her talents, ambition, and academic preparation.

Your support for the direction she takes is vital to her developing confidence as she moves out of the shadow cast by a high-achieving sibling. The answer, then, is yes—your daughter has a very good chance of getting into a good school and receiving financial aid—but it will likely be a school that suits her needs and interests AND one that values her for what she has to offer.

[Learn more about finding the right school.]

Q: Colleges keep saying that it is important for my son to take rigorous courses through the senior year. On the other hand, there are interesting electives that he'd like to try next year. He has taken challenging courses and done well so far. Isn't this a good time for him to explore his career options?—Confused Mom

A: The answer depends on the level of selectivity at the colleges to which your son is applying. Most selective institutions—and all of the most highly selective colleges—expect students to move to the next logical level of rigor each year and to perform well in those courses. At less selective schools, his course selection will be less consequential to the admissions outcome. In that case, exploring may be okay. The conventional wisdom, though, is that his first priority should be to get into college. Then he can explore.

Send your questions relating to previous blog posts or the college admissions process in general to TheAdmissionsInsider@usnews.com.

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