Episode 133: What High School Courses Will Get You into College?

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We are in the fifth week of our new series, Researching College Options, and we have spent the last two episodes talking about the two most likely academic hurdles that kids will meet in trying to get into a college: that is, first, the SAT and ACT scores of newly admitted and/or enrolled freshmen at the college and, second, the average high school grade point average (GPA) of those students. I think we made it clear that both of these matter at most of the nation’s most selective four-year colleges and that high school GPAs matter, in fact, at virtually all of our nation’s four-year colleges.

So, let’s look one more time this week at what we call Step 13 in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–that is, Step 13 of getting the information that your kid needs to make good choices about where to apply. Step 13 is about researching the college’s admission practices; we’ve talked about some of this information, and more is in the book. Finding out all of the information we call for in Step 13 will give you an idea about how likely it is that your kid will be accepted by a college if he or she decides to apply. As we said in the last episode, no one can say for sure whether your kid’s grades or admission test scores or extracurricular and community service activities or letters of recommendation will be appealing enough to get him or her admitted to a particular college. But today’s episode is about one more academic hurdle that might stand between your kid and one or more colleges on his or her Long List of College Options (LLCO): that is, high school courses that your kid did or did not take.

1. What High School Courses Should Your Kid Have Taken?

We want to talk to you about this topic because it is something you still might be able to fix as your kid starts into his or her senior year in the next few weeks. Yes, your kid’s fall semester courses were probably chosen some time ago, but changes can be made in most high schools as classes start if it is important enough. So, let’s find out if it is important enough. Parents of younger students, you still have time to have a major effect on high school courses taken in the next couple of years, and you should absolutely weigh in. Here is what we wrote in our new book for kids like yours:

Let’s look at [another] admission standard–one that is less often considered and more often taken for granted–and that is the courses that applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits (or Carnegie units) in each subject area, but also sometimes including specific courses, especially in math and science.

Part C5 of the common data set [by the way, you can search for the “common data set” on each college’s website, and you will often find it] displays both REQUIRED and RECOMMENDED high school units, by subject area, but you should check out each college’s website for more detailed information. College Navigator [the online resource provided by the National Center for Education Statistics] does not have any specific information on this topic.

On a college’s website, this information [on required and recommended high school courses] can virtually always be found by starting with the Admission home page. You will find that the high school course or credit expectations of colleges do, in fact, differ, usually according to how selective the college is. But there are always a few surprises (like colleges that require students to have earned career and technical education credits in high school, for example).

After you write down the required and the recommended courses or credits, you can compare them from college to college, and you can see how well they match up with what you have taken so far and with what you will be taking as you finish up high school. Particularly if you are just a freshman or sophomore, this information can be invaluable as you plan your remaining semesters in high school. For example, what if a college on your LLCO requires–or, more likely, recommends–four credits of foreign language? Foreign language is something that lots of high school students drop out of before taking a fourth year. Perhaps that’s because they don’t know how many selective colleges recommend it.

The courses that you take in high school matter, including the courses that you take in your senior year. Colleges will tell you that slacking off in the senior year is never a good move. So, for example, a fourth year of math and a fourth year of science would be the best scenario for most applicants–and might be a mandatory scenario for entrance to top colleges and to some college programs, like engineering. If you don’t have a rigorous senior year planned, think again.

In the long, but crucial, College Profile Worksheet that we ask your kid to fill out for every college on his or her LLCO, we ask for the number of credits or courses required for admission to the college or to the college/school that he or she is interested in within the university as well as any specific courses required (like Biology or Algebra II). We ask for the information by subject field–meaning in English, math, science, social studies, foreign languages, arts, and other fields (which could include career and technical education or physical education or health or something else). And then we ask for the same information for recommended courses, including recommended courses like Calculus, for example.

Interestingly, many public state flagship universities have quite detailed lists of required and recommended courses that applicants should have taken, and my guess is that these lists are well known to high schools in those states so that high school counselors can make sure that students take them. At least, I hope they are. For those students applying to flagship universities in states other than their own state–as we have recommended that many students do–those students should be particularly careful about finding out what those requirements are and then meeting them. Why? Because the kids in those states are more than likely meeting all of them because their high schools know about those requirements and are well positioned to provide the courses that are needed.

Let’s look at one example. I took the University of Georgia, a very good flagship university–not the most selective in the nation, but a very competitive one. Here is what the website says about the College Preparatory Curriculum the university expects its applicants to have taken (remember that one unit is equal to one year of study):

At a minimum, by policy of the University System of Georgia, all first-year applicants must complete the College Preparatory Curriculum (CPC), which consists of 17 academic units in English (4), Mathematics (4), Science (4), Social Studies (3), and Foreign Language (2). The Georgia Board of Regents has a detailed high school curriculum guide to assist students in understanding what courses need to be completed for college. (quoted from the website)

Here are a few more details for University of Georgia applicants:

  • 4 units of math must include Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and one math course beyond Algebra II
  • 4 units of science must include 1 unit of biological sciences; 1 unit of physical sciences or Physics; 1 unit of Chemistry, Environmental Science, or Earth Science; and a 4th unit of science, which could include AP Computer Science (with two of the four units being lab sciences)
  • 2 units of foreign languages, with the two units being sequential units in one language

Those are serious requirements. I bet there are a lot of Georgia high school students and a lot of high school students in most states that cannot meet those standards even if the necessary courses were offered in their high schools. Parents, is your kid one of them?

The Georgia example is the reason we are telling you about this now. There is still time to add a fourth year of math or science to your kid’s senior year schedule–even if it is not the hardest math or science that you can imagine. I would a lot rather have four units of math and four units of science on my kid’s transcript and let the college figure out how hard those fourth-year courses actually were than not have the fourth-year courses there at all. In other words, the fourth-year courses do not have to be Calculus and Physics in order to count.

But every college is different. Really. That is exactly why we put these questions on the College Profile Worksheet. You have to know what each college expects or your kid cannot possibly jump that hurdle.

2. A Quick Look at Foreign Languages

Let’s look at my favorite part of this topic, and that is the importance of studying a foreign language in high school (and in college, by the way). It is one of those things that anyone who knows me might guess I am going to bring up–along with the importance of studying outside the U.S., the importance of the liberal arts, and the importance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), to name a few of my favorite soapboxes.

Here are a few startling statistics from an Education Week article in June by Corey Mitchell:

  • The American Councils for International Education estimates that 10.6 million K-12 U.S. students study a world language or American Sign Language. That sounds like a lot of students, but it is actually just 20 percent of American students.
  • Fewer than 10 percent of students in at least two states study a language other than English.
  • Arabic is the fastest-growing second language among U.S. residents, but only 0.25 percent of American students who study a foreign language study Arabic in school. Eight times as many study Latin. I am all for more Arabic, but all my friends know that I would hate to give up Latin.
  • Less than 1 percent of American students who study a foreign language are studying either Russian or Japanese, though both of these languages were popular some decades ago for obvious political or economic reasons.
  • The study of Mandarin, the most commonly spoken language in the world, is increasing among American students. That’s probably an important trend.
  • Eleven states require credits in foreign languages in order to graduate from high school. Does 11 sound like a lot or a little to you? Because it sounds like way too little to me.
  • The District of Columbia and 44 states are in the market for certified foreign language teachers. We are certainly going to need more teachers if we are going to convince more kids to study more foreign languages or foreign languages for more years.

And here is a quotation from Marty Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, also from the Education Week article:

“We’re such a long way in this country from having it be normal to grow up learning other languages. . . . Our future depends on our ability to engage with the rest of the world, and right now Americans have a very tough time doing that.”

We do indeed. So, parents, help your kid stand out when it comes to the college admissions game. Convince your kid to take four years of a foreign language in high school (assuming that your high school makes four years available and, if not, encourage your kid to take two years of one language and two years of another language). Do this not just to get your kid into college; do it for a lot of other great reasons, too. And now I?with my four years of high school Latin and my three years of high school French–will get off my soapbox.

3. It’s Labor Day!

So, we hear that it’s almost Labor Day. We will be taking next week off to catch our breaths and celebrate. You should do the same, because September will require you to hit the ground running. Parents of seniors, the time is here. We will be back with a new episode on September 7. We can’t wait!

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