Friday, February 3, 2012

When Choosing Courses, Do You Take the Road Less Traveled By?

It’s that time of year. Football season is almost over. It’s too cold to plant, but not too early to think about it. But there is one event that’s in season: course selection.

No matter where my families live and students go to school, I see many of the same issues relating to selecting next year’s courses. If you’re the parent of an underclassman – or someone who advises one – here are some tips that you might put to use when choosing courses for 2012-2013.

Should my student pick the regular, honors or AP course? This is a function of the student’s ability, workload and target college list. Of course, when asked if it’s better to get an A in an easy course or a B in a harder one, admissions officers from most competitive colleges will say they want to see As in honors and AP courses. However, I have seen students hurt and overwhelmed by a hard course or a demanding teacher. The student starts to fall increasingly behind, and the parent spends time and resources to help that student recover. The student’s confidence is blown. Believe me; I have had this experience as a parent, and it’s not worth it. Consider the difficulty factor when signing off on your student’s choice of courses, and be understanding if he or she wants to “drop down” next year.

How many AP courses do I need for college? There is no right answer to this question. College admissions officers trace courses from semester to semester and, when evaluating that all-important transcript, they want to see a natural progression in courses. Students should be aware of the nature of the AP course work and the teacher’s style when deciding whether to go the AP route. (By the way, it is possible to take AP exams even when a course isn’t offered, so that’s another option.) The College Board makes sample questions from past exams available, and that is a very good way for a prospective student to determine whether or not a particular course would be appropriate.

How much should my student challenge himself or herself? A student should always be challenged. If all things were equal, I would advise having the most positive and most academic role models around your student. However, some of the same advice given above applies here. In addition, if your student is passionate about a nonacademic activity, he or she will sacrifice valuable study hours. Some of today’s courses are really difficult – far more than they were back when we went to high school. Moreover, colleges don’t want nerdy kids; they want kids who love what they do and use their hours productively.

Does my student need more than three years of the same language? Language is cumulative, and knack for language is to a large extent innate. So some students will have an easier time than others. In today’s global marketplace, competitive colleges and universities expect applicants to have at least three years of the same language, and many prefer four. It would seem strange to see a candidate drop a language after two years and start a new one. At the same time, if a student had room in the schedule, it would be impressive to add a new language.

How demanding a senior year does my student need? The (unfortunate) answer is that applicants to competitive colleges need to sport a very demanding senior year course load. College admissions officers scrutinize the first half of the senior year, looking both at course difficulty and grades. If a college applicant is deferred or rejected in an Early Decision round in the fall, that first semester will be huge. So the message to seniors: Choose your courses wisely, and don’t slack off!

What courses are hot? I’ve noticed that AP Psychology is a very hot course selection among my rising juniors and seniors. There are a number of reasons why: some schools accept AP Psych as a history course; students like the idea of analyzing themselves and their friends; and AP Psych may provide placement credit so that a student doesn’t need to sit through Psych 101 in college. AP Psych requires extensive knowledge of theories and theorists, so if you’re student doesn’t find that appealing, he or she may opt for a different AP. Get a preview on the College Board website:

Contact me with questions. I’ll look forward to hearing what path your student decides to follow.

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