How to Take High School Courses That Balance Good GPA, Academic Rigor

When reviewing applicants’ high school transcripts, college admissions officers look for two main traits: a course load that shows academic rigor and a GPA that demonstrates academic mastery.

However, those two factors can often seem to work against each other. Harder classes, of course, make it harder to earn higher grades. With this conundrum in mind, here are some insights on scheduling high school courses to showcase both academic rigor and academic mastery to prospective colleges.

Find Your Magic Number of Advanced Classes

The benefits of having advanced courses on your high school transcript — whether honors level, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate — are obvious. However, it takes some experimentation to figure out exactly how many advanced courses you should enroll in at a time.

[Read: How to Select the Right AP Classes for You.]

The magic number looks different for everyone because it is dependent on several factors, such as work ethic, goals and scheduling demands. While one student might feel perfectly challenged by taking three AP courses at a time, this amount might be overwhelming for another student.

The key is to start taking advanced-track classes as soon as possible in high school so that you have plenty of time to find your magic number. You can begin with just one or two and, if all fares well, increase your course load the following term.

Aim High, Act Early

It might happen that you start an advanced class and soon realize that it is going to be too much for you. This is normal and can be quickly fixed, provided the deadline to withdraw has not passed.

Most importantly, be honest with yourself from day one. If your gut tells you that a course is not the right fit for you, take the hint before it is too late, such as before you end up with a low grade on your transcript that cannot be erased.

[Read: What Students Should Know About the GPA Scale.]

Courses typically get harder as they progress, not easier, so if you are struggling from the start, switch out promptly. Remember: The transition is always smoother when you go from an advanced to a regular-track course, as opposed to the other way around. Therefore, aim high initially and act early if things go wrong.

However, don’t forget to consult with your school counselor before finalizing your course schedule. He or she has inside information about your school’s courses, in addition to knowing your abilities as a student. Therefore, always carefully weigh your counselor’s advice.

Select Courses That Align With Your Career Goals

High school is an ideal time to begin experimenting with courses that match your professional goals. For instance, if you aspire to become a veterinarian, you should absolutely take an animal behavior course in high school. Those who wish to pursue a career in the arts should enroll in pottery, drawing and painting, theater and other similarly themed classes.

On the other hand, if you wait until college to explore your interests, you may end up paying much more than you need to in tuition and graduate later than you would like.

Admissions officers like to see that you are aggressively pursuing the path that you’ll lay out in your application essays. If your essays claim that you want to become a doctor, for example, then having advanced science classes on your transcript goes a long way toward proving that you’re serious about that pursuit. Conversely, completely avoiding AP and honors science might undermine your essay claims.

As soon as possible, add electives to your schedule that allow you to discover if a career path could suit you, although they may not seem so closely related at first glance. For instance, even if your plan is to major in mechanical engineering, you could still benefit from the skills you would acquire taking IB computer science.

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

While it is beneficial to select courses that align with your passions, you should not limit yourself to just those. Liberal arts colleges, especially, like to see that applicants are well-rounded in terms of their studies.

[Read: What a Liberal Arts College Is and What Students Should Know.]

As such, ensure that your high school transcript both speaks to your long-term goals and demonstrates that you have earned a comprehensive high school education. Even if you dislike foreign language, for instance, perhaps try following through with it until graduation.

Additional Tips

Plan early. Since desirable courses tend to fill up quickly, be proactive about enrolling in your preferred classes. Speak with your school counselor well in advance and keep your calendar marked for critical appointments and deadlines.

Consider your motivation. Avoid enrolling in courses for the wrong reasons, such as because your close friends are taking it. Instead, choose courses for some of the reasons mentioned above. Among other things, they would make your application more competitive and allow you to figure out your interests.

More from U.S. News

3 High School Alternatives to AP and IB

How to Get Accepted Into College With a Low GPA

6 Common College Admissions Myths

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