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ILUMIN Blog

Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.

High School Course Planning: 5 Things You Must Know

Elton Lin

I often get questions about what classes admissions readers want to see on college applications. And the truth is that a good course plan is important. It will not only make you stronger for college applications, it will make you stronger in college.

Before you sign up for another year of classes, here are 5 recommendations to help you make the right decisions.

1. Know when to compare yourself to others.

When parents tell me about a student they’ve heard about with a 3.8 GPA and just above average SAT score who was admitted to Stanford, my initial question is: from what high school?

You should know that as a college applicant, you’re compared to your peers. When evaluating freshman applications, one of the first things I looked at was high school information. Your GPA will be viewed differently depending on the average GPA at your high school as well as how many honors and AP courses you take in the context of how many are offered, not to mention other factors that can make your academic performance look remarkably different.

Despite being compared to others, you should still be realistic about your ability to manage your course load. If you’re stuck on taking 5 AP courses your junior year because you hear this is how your cousin got into Cornell, but then earn multiple C’s, it will not only make Cornell impossible, it will eliminate so many other college options that may otherwise be a good fit.

2.  Challenge yourself.

On the other hand, earning a perfect GPA with low course rigor is not the path to your best college results. It’s truly better to risk B’s with a challenging course load than it is to maintain straight A’s with a relatively easy course load. When I was trained to read UC freshman applications, I was told to pay attention to rigor. If a student was taking a challenging course load, even the occasional C can be forgiven.

As a consultant, I worked with Charles who earned a 3.5 unweighted/3.9 weighted GPA but had taken all of the AP math and science courses offered at his competitive high school. He wasn’t sure what his college results would be, especially considering his 2000 SAT score, but he was admitted to the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. Clearly, his high course rigor balanced his relatively low GPA.

3.  Find your direction.

The reality is your prospective major means so much in terms of what classes you should take to be a strong college applicant. If you’re aiming for a top-ranked business school, it would benefit you to include AP US History and AP Gov in your course plan. If you’re applying as an Engineering major, you should plan for AP Physics in your junior year.

A successful course plan can look so different depending on the prospective major. Kevin, a theater major, took AP Psychology, Drama, and AP English. Despite a below average GPA for his high school, his strong performance in these classes contributed to his admittance to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

4. Try something new for your language other than English.

When you’ve grown up learning a language other than English (LOTE), it often means that your academic achievements in that language, even perfect scores on the SAT and AP exams, will not set you apart for college admissions.

I firmly believe that every decision regarding high school planning should not be based on whether it will make a student look good for college admissions. If you are a first-generation American, learning the language of your parents can be a richly rewarding experience that extends beyond college results.

And, there are exceptions to practically any recommendation for college admissions. For example, my student Stella immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in 9th grade. She struggled to improve her English, and therefore, I recommended she meet her LOTE requirement with Chinese so she could focus on English. Stella made great strides in her English abilities and even took an advanced English course as well as AP Econ and AP Biology in her senior year. Her hard work paid off when she was admitted to NYU and USC.

However, if you aren’t in Stella’s position and want to be as competitive as possible for college applications, enroll in a LOTE that is not the language of your parents during your high school years and “finish” the language by completing courses through the AP level. Taking your time to study - and excel - at a language other than any you were taught as a child is a sure way to strengthen your profile for college applications.

 5. Achieve your balance.

There are going to be certain classes that are easier for you than others. Use this self-understanding to balance your course plan. In other words, if pursuing art isn’t a serious endeavor for you, perhaps you want to plan for a painting class that meets your UC art requirement during junior year as a welcome relief to all those AP math and science classes.

Or maybe, as a business major, you know you want to take AP US History your junior year, so you take AP Environmental Science that year instead of AP Biology, a course that competes with AP US History for requiring the most  memorization.

Another way to look at it is if you have a natural talent for a certain subject area, plan your courses to showcase that talents. I worked with Sandy who wanted to study business and had a passion for learning languages. Through high school and community college classes, she took classes in three languages. These classes didn’t seem like work to her, and her achievement in multiple languages made her stand out for college applications.

The most important perspective you can have when planning your high school courses is knowing what makes sense for you. If you challenge yourself, keeping in mind your strengths and abilities in the context of your goals, you will maximize your college options.

If you have any questions about course planning I'm happy to help. Click here to schedule a free consultation or give us a call at (408) 479-4742.

--Azure Brown