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High School Curriculum: What’s Important?

A rigorous high school curriculum shows that you are intellectually curious, willing to challenge yourself and are comfortable working hard.

Your high school record – the courses you’ve taken and how well you’ve done — is generally considered the most important factor in college admissions. Many colleges consider a challenging course load more important than top grades. Strong grades in honors, AP and IB courses are typically more impressive than perfect grades in regular classes.

Colleges look beyond your GPA and focus on specific courses (e.g. difficulty), whether your high school grades improved over time and if you let your senior year grades slide. Junior year is most important followed by first-semester senior year. Freshman and sophomore grades are typically less significant, especially if there is a pattern of improvement.

Along with the transcript, high schools provide colleges with a school profile. The profile contains information about the school, the courses offered, the number of students in the senior class, the percentage of them that go to four-year colleges, etc. Admissions officers review the profile of your high school to gain perspective of your academic achievements vis-à-vis other applicants from different high schools.

Taking the most challenging college prep curriculum you can manage, while earning strong grades, is considered the best strategy for gaining admission to competitive colleges. At the same time, don’t stress out by taking too intense a workload and getting bad grades.

Your guidance counselor should make recommendations regarding specific core and elective courses. Depending on what’s offered at your school, your counselor may even suggest dual-enrollment classes at a community college or local university.

Plan ahead so you can satisfy pre-requisite requirements. For instance, you may need to take algebra or geometry as a freshman to qualify for calculus by your senior year.

High school course selections usually match up with what most colleges expect from you. Of course, each college and university may have different requirements, so check out the web sites of the colleges you’re interested in to see what they recommend or require.

 Generally recommended high school courses for college-bound students:
  • English – 4 or more years
  • Mathematics – 3 or more years
  • Science – 3 or more years
  • Social Sciences – 3 or more years
  • Foreign Language – 2 or more years of the same language (ideally 3 or 4)
Do some research before earning too much college credit while in high school — it can be a mixed blessing depending on the policy of the college you attend following high school. At some colleges, credit from AP classes and high school dual enrollment courses can enable you to earn a college degree in less than four years – making college more affordable. At other colleges, too many dual enrollment credits could make you eligible to apply only as a transfer applicant instead of a freshman applicant. Also, keep in mind that some colleges do not accept credits (or grades) from other colleges. Policies about AP credit and dual enrollment are generally available on college web sites.
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