Episode 62: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part Two

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This is our eighth episode focusing on news stories about higher education—some that might immediately change your thoughts about colleges for your teenager and others that might take a bit longer to consider.  Today’s story continues our look at a new report that grew out of a meeting a year ago hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common.  As we said in our last episode, the meeting brought together college admissions deans, high school folks, and others to discuss the state of college admissions.  The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.

In our last episode, we also quoted project co-director Richard Weissbourd from a recent Education Week commentary he wrote (“College Admission 2.0: Service Over Self,” January 19, 2016),:

For perhaps the first time in history, a broad range of colleges have come together to send a powerful collective message that what’s important in admissions is not high numbers of impressive accomplishments or long ‘brag sheets.’  Yes, academic engagement matters, but so does meaningful ethical engagement, especially as shown in concern for others and the common good.  The report also redefines ethical and intellectual contributions to more fairly capture the strengths of students across race, culture, and class.  (quoted from the article)

Again, I hope this is true, but the jury is still out, as they say.  To repeat, the report was endorsed by an impressive list of higher education administrators from impressive institutions—that is, every Ivy League school plus about 50 more higher education institutions, including some of our nation’s best small liberal arts colleges, best public flagship universities, and best private universities, including Amherst College, Boston College, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, College of the Holy Cross, Emory University, Kenyon College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Oberlin College, Purdue University, Reed College, Rice University, Smith College, Swarthmore College, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, the University of Washington, Wabash College, and Wake Forest University.  Incidentally, we talked about every one of these institutions during our virtual tour of colleges nationwide.  We said it then:  They are great schools.

The question again is simply this:  How much do they mean it?

The Report’s Recommendations

The report makes 11 recommendations.  We talked about the first six in our last episode, so we will pick up where we left off with the final five:

1) “Prioritizing Quality—Not Quantity—of Activities:  Admissions offices should send a clear message that numerous extracurricular activities or long “brag sheets” do not increase students’ chances of admission.  Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities and should discourage students from reporting activities that have not been meaningful to them.  Applications should provide room to list perhaps no more than four activities or should simply ask students to describe two or three meaningful activities narratively.  Applications should underscore the importance of the quality and not the quantity of students’ extracurricular activities.  Admissions offices should define students’ potential for achievement in terms of the depth of students’ intellectual and ethical engagement and potential.”  (quoted from the report)

All this sounds like an interesting proposition, but one that has not really come to fruition just yet.  So, I don’t think parents can put this advice into practice on their teenager’s college application forms this year.  What parents can do is make sure that their teenagers have two or three activities that are important to them, that they do for a sustained period of time, and ideally that they excel in.  These activities should be highlighted in whatever ways are possible—like in an essay, for example, and listed first in any list of activities that is made on an application.  Of course, it is hard to be the first applicant to list just two or three or four activities; most of us are going to wait until all applicants agree to do that.  My feeling is that colleges could easily limit the number of activities to be listed to four (including sports teams)—the top four, according to the student’s own judgment of what was important to him or her—and that additional activities past four don’t really add much to an admissions officer’s view of that student.  I am not sure how many students can do more than four things after school hours that are truly valuable to them.

2)Awareness of Overloading on AP/IB Courses:  Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas. While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions process.  At the same time, it’s vital to increase access to advanced courses for large numbers of students in schools without access to adequately challenging courses.”  (quoted from the report)

Well, personally I agree with this recommendation wholeheartedly, but I am not sure I could convince any high school guidance counselor or principal or bright student or ambitious parent.  And, I am not sure that even all of the admissions officers in the 60 or so colleges that endorsed this report would agree with this recommendation.  Everybody who knows bright high school kids these days has a horror story of a kid taking two or three AP courses at a time—sometimes as a junior.  I have to admit that, when a student is filling out his or her senior-year courses on a college application, it feels bad never to check off that the course is an AP or honors or college-credit course.  Do we hope that all kids have access to advanced courses, including dual-credit, dual-enrollment, or Early College courses?  We do.  Do we hope that kids get sound advice when choosing which advanced courses to take and how many to take simultaneously?  We absolutely do.

3)Discouraging ‘Overcoaching’:  Admissions offices should warn students and parents that applications that are ‘overcoached’ can jeopardize desired admission outcomes.  Admissions officers, guidance counselors and other stakeholders should remind parents and students that authenticity, confidence, and honesty are best reflected in the student’s original voice. Admission officers should consider inviting students (and families) to reflect on the ethical challenges they faced during the application process.”  (quoted from the report)

I think this is probably old news.  No one wants kids to get so much help with their college applications that everything written in them sounds like a paid adult consultant wrote it.  That would be “overcoaching.”  However, let’s also understand that most kids, including and perhaps especially the very brightest kids, do get some help with their applications—discussions about essay topics, proofreading of essays, discussions about what activities to include, and more.  That’s not really going to change—not while admissions to selective institutions are as competitive as they are.  The most I feel comfortable saying to parents is this:  “Don’t be too aggressive in dealing with your kids.  Don’t substitute your ideas for theirs.  And get help for your teenager from an impartial adult, if your teenager seems overwhelmed by your advice.”

4)Options for Reducing Test Pressure:  Admissions offices should work to relieve undue pressure associated with admission tests (SAT and ACT). Options for reducing this pressure include:  making these tests optional, clearly describing to applicants how much these tests actually “count” and how they are considered in the admissions process, and discouraging students from taking an admissions test more than twice.  Colleges should tell students that taking the test more than twice is very unlikely to meaningfully improve students’ scores.  Colleges should also be asked to justify the use of admissions tests by providing data that indicates how scores are related to academic performance at their particular institution.”  (quoted from the report)

Well, this is a mixture of interesting statements.  We have talked about test-optional and test-flexible colleges in earlier episodes of NYCollegeChat and in our book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (available in print and electronically at Amazon.com).  We have said that some of our finest colleges have become test-optional or test-flexible colleges and that the list of those colleges seems to keep growing.  I do want to point out that, when applying to most of these test-optional colleges, students may still submit SAT or ACT scores if they choose to (meaning, if the scores are good and they think it will help their chances of being accepted).  When we look at the average admission test scores of students who submitted them to some test-optional colleges, we see that many, many students still submitted them and that the scores are usually quite good.  There are very, very few colleges that actually say anything like this:  “Do not send any test scores.  We will not use test scores in any way whatsoever in admission decisions or in course placement decisions once accepted.”  We know of one, for sure.  Listen to what Hampshire College says on its website:

Unlike ‘test-optional’ institutions, we will not consider SAT/ACT scores regardless of the score. Even if it’s a perfect score, it will not weigh into our assessment of an applicant.

Many colleges have adopted test-optional policies to compensate for the gender, class, racial and ethnic biases that have been found with standardized testing.  In this case students can decide whether or not to have them considered as part of their application. We are test-blind because we found through our own internal research that in addition to being biased, these standardized tests are poor predictors of success at Hampshire.  (quoted from the website)

That is an unusually extreme—and very intriguing—position.  It also answers the last part of the report’s recommendation:  “Colleges should also be asked to justify the use of admissions tests by providing data that indicates how scores are related to academic performance at their particular institution.”  When other colleges adopted a test-optional policy, some did provide their own internal research—like Bryn Mawr College, for example.  Nonetheless, I am not convinced that this report has the power to get many more colleges to take this particular step.  And finally, there was this statement:  “Colleges should tell students that taking the test more than twice is very unlikely to meaningfully improve students’ scores.”  As a matter of fact, that depends entirely on what students did between test takings.  For example, a student who took a prep course (especially a commercial one) after a second test taking could likely raise his or her scores before a third test taking.  Furthermore, if a student took the test first as a junior, then for a second time right at the beginning of the senior year, and then for a third time toward the end of the first semester of the senior year, I believe that third set of scores could be better—especially if a student had not been too motivated in the first two attempts.

5)Expanding Students’ Thinking about ‘Good’ Colleges:  Admissions officers and guidance counselors should challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success.  It is incumbent upon parents to challenge this misconception as well.  There is a broad range of excellent colleges across the country, and students who attend these colleges are commonly successful later in life in the full array of professions.  There are many paths to professional success, and students and parents should be far more concerned with whether a college is a good fit for a student than how high status it is.  Finally, we are keenly aware that reforming college admissions is only one piece of a far larger challenge.  Ultimately, we cannot bring about a sea change in the messages our culture sends to young people unless educational institutions at every level elevate and embody a healthier set of values.  While this change needs to start or accelerate from multiple points, we view our recommendations as one powerful place to begin.  In the face of deeply troubling trends that only seem to be worsening, it is time to say ‘Enough.’ ”  (quoted from the report)

It is easy to applaud that sentiment.  And it is true—as we have said repeatedly on NYCollegeChat episodes, including during our virtual tour of colleges nationwide—that there are many good colleges and some truly unique colleges that most high school students never even consider.  Nonetheless, if you listened to Episode 59, you will remember that another research report said quite clearly that high-achieving students who go to selective colleges fare better—both in college and after college.  So, what does it all mean?  We think it means what we said in Episode 59:  You should send your teenager to the most selective college that admits him or her, if you can afford it with whatever financial aid you can get.  That doesn’t mean that only selective colleges are “good” colleges.  There are many colleges that are super interesting—some might say “very good”—that are not extremely selective.  And there are many definitions of “selective”—“most selective,” “highly selective,” “very selective,” and so on.  But, with all that said, we still would like to see your teenager in the most selective college that will admit him or her.

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  • Whether colleges could be serious about these recommendations
  • Whether parents can take these recommendations seriously
  • Whether high school students can benefit from these recommendations

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Episode 60: Who’s Teaching College Courses to High Schoolers?

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In recent weeks, we have been talking about news stories about higher education—some that might immediately influence your teenager’s decisions and others that might take longer to impact your family. Today’s story is the perfect intersection of college and high school, and it is a story that could affect your current high schoolers right now as they try to put together a high school program for themselves that will make them attractive applicants to colleges.

NYCollegeChat Podcast Episode 60: Who's Teaching #College Courses to High Schoolers? #collegeaccess #highschool #parents

In today’s episode, we are taking a look at a growing movement nationwide—one that Marie and I invested a lot of time and effort in when we co-founded an Early College high school in New York City in 2009. That movement is the offering of courses for college credit to high school students. Sometimes students earn only college credits for such courses, and sometimes students earn both high school and college credits for those courses (in that case, they are often referred to as dual-enrollment or dual-credit or concurrent-enrollment courses). Sometimes students attend Early College high schools that partner with colleges to offer college credit courses as part of a formal and structured program, which often supplies support services to students as well. Sometimes college credit courses are offered on the college campus and sometimes at the high school. Sometimes college credit courses are taught by college professors and sometimes by high school teachers—which is the subject of today’s episode.

Let us say right now that Marie and I are huge fans of Early College high schools and of offering college credit courses to high school students who can rise to the occasion and do good academic work. By the way, in our experience, that is far more students than you might think—and it includes many low-income urban students, who are written off by way too many colleges and indeed by an unfortunate number of high schools. We have seen kids, who were not fortunate enough to have had great middle school experiences and who had virtually been given up on by high school teachers, bloom in college classes. It is fair to say that we are about as biased in favor of accelerating high school students into college courses as you can be. So what’s the question?

The question is about who is teaching the college courses that high school students are taking for college credit (and sometimes for both college and high school credit simultaneously). At our Early College high school, students went to our college partner’s campus in their third year with us and started taking actual college courses, taught by college professors, but in classes with only their high school classmates. In their fourth year of high school with us, our students went to college full time—taking a full load of regular college classes taught by college professors in classes of regular college students. These courses were not dual-credit courses; our students had already earned all of the high school credits they needed to graduate, and so these courses were simply college courses for college credit.

It was clear to us that college professors should be teaching the college credit courses that our high school students took. In other types of programs, it is evidently less clear.

1. New Requirements for High School Teachers

Many dual-credit courses are, in fact, taught by high school teachers in high school classrooms. I understand the efficiency of this practice and even the necessity of this practice in places where students cannot get to a college campus easily and where college professors cannot get to students at their high school easily, either. But I don’t prefer it, and I don’t think it gives students the same experience. It might be a college course, but it is not a college professor or a college location or a roomful of other college students.

Last fall in Education Week (October 13, 2015), Catherine Gewertz wrote an article about a new ruling by the Higher Learning Commission that angered a lot of educators, but frankly pleased me: “New Teacher Requirements Jeopardize Dual-Credit Classes.” (The Higher Learning Commission is the organization that accredits colleges in much of the West and Midwest.) The Commission stated that a high school teacher who is teaching a dual-credit course must have a master’s degree. Furthermore, if the teacher does not have a master’s degree in the subject field of the course he or she is teaching (for example, mathematics, English, or history), then the teacher must have at least 18 graduate credits in that subject field. So, for example, if a high school mathematics teacher has a master’s degree in education, that teacher must also have at least 18 master’s-level or more advanced credits in mathematics in order to teach a dual-credit mathematics course for college credit. These are the same requirements that regular college faculty must meet, and I personally am fine with that.

Initially, when the ruling was made last year, colleges were given until September, 2017, to get their dual-credit courses into compliance. The Commission is now saying that it will review applications for an extension of that deadline until September, 2022. So, clearly, colleges are concerned about getting high school teachers enough appropriate graduate-level credits to continue teaching in their dual-credit programs.

High schools are just as concerned—and maybe more so. The Education Week article notes that some principals in Indiana (where more than 65,000 high school students took dual-enrollment courses in 2014) have said that as many as 90 percent of their teachers could not meet the Commission’s standard. The Education Week article also pointed out that Indiana’s chief academic officer for higher education had commented that high school teachers who teach Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses—both of which can yield college credit with high-enough exam scores—are not required to have a master’s degree. I understand that point, though I continue to believe that AP and IB courses are not actually college courses—academically challenging though they might be.

Here is another complaint, according to the Education Week article:

One of the criticisms of the ruling is its use of a master’s degree as a proxy for good teaching. . . .   ‘I strongly disagree with the [Higher Learning Commission] that quality teaching equals having an advanced degree in your field,’ Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change in St. Paul, Minn., wrote in an email. Nathan helped write the 1985 law that made Minnesota the first in the country with a statewide policy allowing dual-credit courses. (quoted from the article)

Personally, I don’t think the Commission is saying that having a master’s degree means you are a good teacher, or indeed a good college professor. All of us have had college professors who were not good teachers, and all of us have had high school teachers who were not good teachers, too. In this case, the master’s degree means that you have broad and detailed knowledge of the subject field you are teaching. It is about the content that you need to know, not the teaching skill that you need to have. It is the standard that colleges use for their own faculty and, as such, I am willing to use it for teachers of dual-credit courses, which should be as close to the same as college courses as possible.

2. An Interesting Solution

Ohio has an idea for solving the problem (and it’s possible other states have done something like this as well). In order to help high school teachers get the graduate-level college courses they need to teach in the State’s dual-credit program (called College Credit Plus), the State has given grants to some colleges to make it possible for teachers to take the courses they need tuition free, according to the Dayton Daily News (“College credit program could get surge of teachers,” by Jeremy P. Kelley, January 10, 2016). Colleges are putting some of their own funds into the programs as well.

Of course, it is still a lot of work for high school teachers who do not have many graduate-level credits in the subject area of the college course they are teaching. It could take them some time to complete the 18 credits required.

Yet, the Dayton Daily News article noted that “[s]ome education research suggests that students who earn multiple college credits while in high school are more likely to achieve some level of college degree.” And with more than 30,000 Ohio high school students taking college credit courses last fall, that turns out to be a lot more students on a solid path to a college degree.

3. What Does This Mean for You?

So here is something that Marie and I have said before in earlier episodes of NYCollegeChat and in our book How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (available at Amazon.com in print and electronically). If your teenager goes to a high school that offers college credit courses through an Early College program or another type of dual-credit or dual-enrollment program, please make sure your teenager takes advantage of it. Why?

  • Because you will likely save some money in college tuition when your teenager finally goes to college
  • Because your teenager will likely have a valuable college experience while still in high school (especially if that experience is on a college campus with a college professor)
  • Because your teenager will more likely graduate from college—and in a shorter time—if he or she has earned some college credits while still in high school

I think in an early episode of NYCollegeChat I said something like this: I have spent much of my 40-year professional career studying and evaluating education innovations for the federal government, for various state governments, for various school districts, and for various foundations. I have seen a lot of programs that claimed to make a difference. Almost all of them had some downside or other. But Early College programs and other dual-credit programs just do not seem to have any downside at all. So, take advantage of them whenever possible. And if you are moving and looking at new school district homes, let the presence of such programs be one thing you absolutely look for.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • What to ask your school board
  • How to increase the chances that other colleges take these credits
  • Why this topic is so important

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Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EDWorks, a Subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college with an interview with Andrea Mulkey.

NYCollegeChat podcast, Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EdWorks, a subsidiery of KnowledgeWorks

Listen to Andrea Mulkey talk about the great guidance and support that her organization, EDWorks, gives to innovative high school and college partnerships across the U.S. An early advocate and designer of the Early College high schools initiative, Andrea has done a lot in the past decade to spread this win-win idea from state to state—including a long assignment right here in New York State.

In the interview, Andrea chats with Marie and Regina about the impressive numbers of high schoolers taking college courses for credit and the kinds of successes these students have had. Students enrolling in college courses for credit—whether through an Early College high school program or in a traditional high school with a college partner—is truly one of a handful of education innovations with no downside. Every high school parent should know about it.

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  • The impact of college study on struggling high school students
  • Saving on college tuition by taking college courses during high school
  • What community colleges might have to do with it

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Episode 19: Senior-Year Courses

This week, we continue our Getting Ready to Apply series by discussing senior-year courses.
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Taking care of your GPA–but not just for college admissions reasons
Taking AP exams–but not taking the course first
Taking actual college courses during the senior year–but not through dual enrollment

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This week, we continue our series on Getting Ready to Apply by focusing on senior-year courses.

NYCollegeChat Episode 19 Senior Year Courses
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Some students think that it is all over by the time they get to the senior year. Everyone knows that it is the junior year grades that count the most. But wait! Senior year is important, and this is why: Virtually every college application asks students to list the courses being taken in the senior year, both semesters. And, virtually every college application asks students to indicate whether each senior year course is an honors course, an Advanced Placement (AP) course, a dual enrollment course (meaning that is being taken at a college or at the high school, but with a college’s staffing and/or supervision), or an International Baccalaureate (IB) course (for students in IB schools). So, taking just regular courses in the senior year could look like a bit of a cop-out to a prospective college. Therefore, if your child has the option of taking some more advanced or accelerated courses, it is worth thinking hard about that.

If your child’s high school does not offer any of these special kinds of courses, then just make sure that he or she takes the most rigorous courses available.

By the way, some colleges have minimum high school course requirements that they expect students to meet. They are much like your state’s course requirements for high school graduation. So, just to be safe, taking English, math, science, and social studies every year in high school is a good idea, along with a year of fine arts—art, music, or dance. That fourth year of math is particularly important—whether that’s calculus, precalculus, or statistics (preferably AP Statistics, if it is offered).

Let’s look at a few options for senior-year courses because it would be nice to be able to say on college applications that at least one senior-level course was advanced or accelerated in some way. Of course, taking advanced or accelerated courses as a freshman, sophomore, or junior also looks great on your child’s high school transcript, so your child need not wait until senior year to take advantage of these options if they are available earlier at your child’s high school.

1. Honors Courses

Your child’s high school might or might not offer courses designated as “honors” courses. If it does, entry into those courses might not be up to the student, because students might have to be chosen for honors courses by teachers, based on past grades or test scores. But, if your child does have the choice to take an honors English course or a regular English course, for example, encourage your child to take the honors course, assuming that he or she can get a good grade in it by working hard.

As you probably know, some high schools “weight” grades in honors courses of various types—meaning that students get more credit toward their GPAs for a grade received in an honors course than for a grade received in a regular course. In other words, getting a B+ in an honors course might be as good for your child’s GPA as receiving an A– in a regular course. On the other hand, some high schools do not “weight” grades in honors courses of various types—meaning that getting a B+ in an honors course will be worse for your child’s GPA than getting an A– in a regular course. So, that is something you will have to consider: Is it better to go for the higher GPA or to have honors courses on your child’s transcript and college applications? That is a hard choice, and colleges might not agree on which choice is better. The ideal, of course, is go for the honors course and encourage your child to get as good a grade in it as he or she would have gotten in the regular course. That’s the win–win.

2. Advanced Placement Courses

The weighted grades discussion applies to Advanced Placement (AP) courses as well. As you probably know, AP courses are designed to be college-level courses, taught at the high school by specially trained high school teachers. AP courses are a product of The College Board, which puts together both the syllabus, or outline, for the course and the test that is used at the end of the course to judge how well students learned the material. In addition, The College Board trains and certifies the high school teachers who teach the course. More than 35 AP courses have been developed, with multiple courses available in a variety of subject fields—in English, history and social science, mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences, world languages and cultures, and the arts.

The end-of-course AP tests are graded on a 5-point scale. Some colleges give college credit for high scores—for example, scores of 4 or 5. Some colleges let students who get high scores skip introductory courses in that subject field, but do not give students any credit. Basically, individual colleges can do what they want to do with AP test scores—including nothing at all.

Some high schools teach AP courses as senior-level courses; others teach them to younger students as well; others do not teach them at all. Whatever you think of AP courses—how good they are, how hard they are, whether they are really like college courses—it probably makes sense for your child to take one or more if your child has the course prerequisites and the ability to do it, purely from a how-it-looks-to-prospective-colleges perspective.

3. Dual Enrollment Courses

Many high schools do not have dual enrollment courses. But, if your child’s high school does, they are a fabulous option. These are college courses, which give students both high school credit and college credit at the same time because the students are dually enrolled—that is, enrolled in both college and high school at the same time for the same course. These courses are usually available in Early College high schools, though there are only about 300 Early College high schools across the U.S. We are lucky in New York City to have just over 15 Early College high schools now, with another two dozen or so statewide. However, other high schools that are not Early College high schools also can offer dual enrollment courses, typically in cooperation with a nearby college.

If dual enrollment courses are available at your child’s high school and your child is eligible to take them (that is, your child has whatever course prerequisites are needed), then make sure that your child takes them. These courses carry credits awarded by the cooperating college, which makes it more likely—though not guaranteed—that whatever college your child eventually attends will accept them. For that reason, these credits are likely more valuable than AP exam scores. There is really no downside to taking college courses in high school if a student is prepared for them.

4. Summer College Courses

We said in a recent episode that taking college courses in the summer—ideally after eleventh grade, I think—is a great way to make productive use of the summertime. We mentioned that one college application I had seen recently asked the applicant to account for his activities during every summer of his high school years. What better to have to say than, “I was taking a course at a college.” Whether the college is local or far away, big or small, selective or not, public or private, two-year or four-year—earning college credits during the summer while still a high school student is a wonderful idea. We also said that the only better idea is to study abroad and earn those college credits at an interesting college outside of the U.S.

Now, this is an episode about senior-year courses. So, the question is whether your child can list a course taken in the summer after the junior year as a senior-year course. I think that is a reasonable position, and I think that a college would find it acceptable.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Taking care of your GPA—but not just for college admissions reasons
  • Taking AP exams—but not taking the course first
  • Taking actual college courses during the senior year—but not through dual enrollment

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