Juniors: Here's what you need to know when selecting next year's classes

Juniors, as you meet with your counselor to select your classes for next year, keep in mind that what colleges want to see are students whose course of study is characterized by appropriate challenge and rigor.

So what does that mean?

It means that colleges want to see evidence in your courses that you are willing to stretch intellectually and academically in the core areas of the curriculum -- science, math, English, social studies and foreign language -- and that your choice of classes demonstrates a pattern of increasing difficulty. For example, if a student wants to study science, she would take progressively more demanding courses in that core area. This is an important signal for college admission officers. In fact, one report found that taking progressively more difficult and higher- level courses increased an applicant’s chance of being accepted at a competitive college— more so than a higher grade point average.

Here's what Douglas Christiansen, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University, has to say about what challenge and rigor mean:

On the Common Application, in the section the college counselor fills out, they are asked to rank     the applicant’s course selection. Did the student take the most demanding, very demanding, demanding, average, or below average curriculum offered? Did they take what is perceived in the school to be the most elevated classes?

We want the student who has pursued the greatest rigor in her course work, the most demanding curriculum. But that has to be put in context so as not to penalize a student who does not have the opportunity. Here’s an example: A suburban high school offers twenty- eight AP courses and a student takes three. An inner- city high school offers two AP courses and a student takes two. All else being equal, the inner- city student taking two may look more favorable, because we are looking for students who took advantage of the opportunities available to them in the context of their environment.

Our philosophy is that we’re not recruiting students to fill a class. We’re recruiting students to build a community. We want them to come here and push and take the very best classes— not come and take the easy way out. So the challenge and rigor in their course work is a good indication of their ability to do the work, but also of their motivation.

Course selection and rigor also go much deeper than just being about how to get into college. If a student prepares well and takes the most rigorous courses, that student will have a much higher likelihood of a successful college career. You should be taking these courses so that you will be better suited for college, and also to be successful once you’re there.

But do remember that admission officers want to see you challenge yourself within reason. So don't just sign up for the most difficult classes available in every discipline especially if it leaves you struggling.  And don't sign up for the easiest course load just to get straight A's.


For more information about a recommended course of study and the role of the grades and courses in admissions, see Chapter 5, "The Academic Record," and Appendix II, "A Recommended Course of Study," in College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.





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