Early High School Planning: A Healthy Approach to Picking out Courses
Updated: Mar 8, 2020
This week my wife and I registered our oldest son for high school. And yes I am officially weirded out by it. I’m not sure why though; I have spent most of my adult professional life in high schools, and around high schoolers.
Having a high schooler in the house hits everyone in unique ways. That is especially true for admissions professionals, most of whom have spent waaaaay too much time hanging around high school parking lots, college counseling centers, and behind tables at a “cafegymatorium.”
You learn a lot about teen culture, and yourself, after sitting behind a folding table in a high school hallway. You end up googling a lot of things you hear. You wonder how someone was allowed to leave the house dressed like that. Mostly, you wonder what has brought you to this point, in this hallway, as an educated young professional, talking to no one because who has time, except for that one dude who only came by to ask, “Can I have this pen?”
Two benefits though of having worked with a lot of high schoolers over the years: 1) I know way too much about high schools and their mascots, like, party-trick level stuff, and 2) I have answered a TON of questions about what classes a student should take.
Should I take X or Y class is pretty much the bulk of the college prep decision-making that will occur during the 8th-10th grades. Here’s some things to keep in mind when you’re making your curricular plans:
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. For example, 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 is not an option without doubling up in high school (a strategy that is difficult at best, and outright impossible at worst).
Having high school exposure to Calculus Is important because it serves as a foundational college math course for several highly sought after undergraduate degrees, namely engineering and business.
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 his or her 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 https://collegesofdistinction.com/advice/how-to-transfer-dual-enrollment-credits-to-college/), 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 threatens 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 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 where he or she 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.
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