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Annual GEC Guide to High School Course Selection: Charting the Course

Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

This week begins the annual rite of high school course scheduling, which for many families, means two things: 1) they are shocked that they will soon have an “[insert number]th grader” in the house, 2) they will be faced with a near dizzying array of course options to sift through.

We have answered several questions about this and will continue to help families navigate course selection. In fact, at this time last year, we published a guide to early high school planning to which we will be building on and adding to here.

Also, to assist you and your family in outlining a curricular plan, we have created a simple to use Google Sheet worksheet template for everyone to use.

Updated for 2021

Fit Math and Science in to the Puzzle First

Even if your student isn’t a big fan of these subjects, it is important to create a plan that allows them to have access to the appropriate level of math and science when they are in 11th and 12th grades. Unlike other courses, math and science can be rigidly sequenced, meaning that if the goal is to be able to enroll in AP Calculus in 12th grade (for example) the course schedule needs to be reverse engineered to make sure that is possible.

It is especially important to pay attention to whether your student will need calculus and/or physics or not. If the student is even remotely considering a STEM, engineering, or pre-med major in college, they will almost certainly want, and in some cases, must have taken physics in high school. I cannot stress this enough - as in, some engineering programs will not even consider your application if you do not have high school physics. The same is often true for calculus.

It is true that not every student will need to take calculus in high school to be prepared for college math, (it may make better sense to consider statistics in 11th or 12th grade if the student is 100% sure they will not be a STEM, or related major in college). BUT, until that path is completely clear, the early years of high school should focus on keeping as many options open as is reasonably possible.

As for foreign language, keep in mind that the more selective colleges will prefer that a student takes upwards of three to four years of a foreign language.

What About Career Exploration Courses?

Many high schools offer profession-based tracks to expose students to various types of industries and types of work environments. Does it matter which ones your student takes? No, not really. At least not to colleges.

These are great opportunities to try on various types of career options without worrying too much about what colleges will want.

Sifting Through Virtual Options

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a tremendous increase in the amount of virtual options that are available to families. How can you sort them out?

We would recommend investigating the following:

Who is facilitating the virtual courses? Is it local or is it managed through national companies and organizations? Make sure to check their reviews and records. Many have spotty track records and inconsistent quality ratings from past parent and student users.

Focus on the rigor: will they guarantee honors or AP course availability? If not, I’m not interested.

What kind of human support is available and when? Are there designated teachers and tutors assigned to your student? What are their backgrounds? When are they available?

Updated 2020:

Eighth Grade Math Matters

Nationwide, despite nearly 80% of students having access to Algebra 1 in 8th grade, only 24% of students actually take it then. This matters, a lot. Researchers have noted the importance of Algebra I as a foundation upon which to build both upper level mathematics and science curricula. An ideal high school math sequence would look like this: Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, and finishing with Calculus. Without 8th grade Algebra I, this sequence becomes nearly impossible without doubling up.

Understand that every child is different and there is truly no one-size-fits-all recommendation with any of these ideas, but generally students who take more advanced math courses have been shown to be better prepared for college and the high tech professions that potentially await beyond it. If you have access to 8th grade Algebra I, we generally recommend your student take it.

Advanced Placement (AP) vs. Dual Enrollment

We are advocates for taking a more challenging course load when it makes sense. If a student is showing proficiency and (most importantly) confidence in a particular subject, then assess the next level and whether it will fit in your student’s anticipated schedule. When we say “schedule,” we don’t just mean their course schedule, we mean their entire schedule, which means outside of school activities, work and family obligations, and other important life considerations, like, you know, sleep. Even if your school does not follow recommendations of advocacy groups like Challenge Success in providing an estimate for nightly homework, you can still request this information from most schools. Piece together a typical weekly schedule and give it a gut check.

AP classes are offered via the College Board, which manages the curriculum of their 37 AP class offerings centrally, while local teachers must be certified and trained to be approved to teach AP courses. Students taking AP courses can sit for an exam at the end of the year; depending on their score (1-5, with 5 being the best score) a student may be able to get credit, or advanced standing, at their college.

Dual enrollment refers to college courses a student would take prior to graduation from high school, usually offered through a local college.

As it relates to AP versus dual enrollment, here are some considerations:

  • Both are looked at favorably by colleges. AP has the advantage of being national and standardized, whereas dual enrollment is not.

  • Unless you have been given direct assurance that a dual enrollment program will count as college credit (via a set program or statewide articulation agreement, it is probably wise to assume that your dual enrollment course will not count for college credit.

  • With both AP and dual enrollment, there is a law of diminishing returns if a student takes too many. If the student isn’t provided enough time and bandwidth for the collection of work, stress and being overwhelmed are a real risk - which in turn can threaten their performance.

What do colleges want more: Challenging courses or higher GPA?

The snarky and annoying colleges will say both. Just roll your eyes at those folks.

For those college admissions professionals who will actually answer the question, they will tell you they prefer a challenging curriculum. Here’s why: they have an interest in your student not just enrolling at their institution, but also thriving there. What better way to prepare your student for college-level work than actual college-level work? Even better, is college-level work with a whole support network (you, GEC, high school staff, etc.,) around your student.

Trying to impress a college by avoiding challenging coursework so your student’s GPA is higher is like trying to get stronger without lifting weights. At some point your student is going to be asked to do some actual intellectual heavy lifting.

Do I need to take the AP class to take the AP exam?

No, actually, you do not. For situations in which a student may feel highly qualified in a subject, but does not have access to an AP class (like homeschool, etc), a student can still take an AP exam without taking the class.

There is also the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), another College Board program, in which students can take exams to see if they qualify for college credit in various courses.

Finally, use the early high school years to establish healthy patterns:

  • Being involved in activities (formal and informal) that the student truly enjoys, NOT what they think will look good on a “college resume.” Colleges want interesting and engaged students, not resume fillers. Trust me on this.

  • Figuring out study patterns and routines that are effective and healthy.

  • Remember, mistakes are the path to growth, not the end of the road. A “C” grade in 9th grade does not mean the dream of college is dead. Focus on what led to the lower grade and encourage them to make adjustments for the next time.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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