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

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

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!

Find our books on Amazon!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Episode 83: Assignment #3—Looking at One More College Admission Standard

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

So, parents of juniors (and parents of freshmen and sophomores who are thinking ahead) you have had your first two assignments in the college search process. We hope we are keeping you busy, butmore importantlyinterested in what can be a fascinating and actually enjoyable process.

Looking at One More College Admission Standard on USACollegeChat Podcast

So far, we have had you expanding your teenager’s long summer list of college options so that you are truly ready to narrow it in the fall. And we have had you check out key admission standards for the colleges on that listnamely, average high school GPA, high school class rank, and SAT or ACT scores of admitted and/or enrolled freshmen.

1. Your Assignment #3

Download the Assignment #3 Worksheet

In this episode, we will examine a fourth admission standard that you and your teenager should be looking at carefully. I think it is the one that is less often considered and more often taken for grantedand that is the courses that applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits in each subject area, but also sometimes including specifically named courses, especially in math and science.

You should have your teenager go to the website for each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options and find the high school courses that an applicant should have completed or the number of credits of each subject that an applicant should have earned. This information can virtually always be found by starting with the Admissions 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).

Have your teenager write down the required and the recommended courses or credits. Then you can compare them from college to college, and you can see how well they match up with what your teenager has taken so far and will be taking as he or she finishes up high school.

As we have said in earlier episodes of USACollegeChat, the courses that kids take in high school matter, including the courses that kids take in their senior year. Colleges will tell you that slacking off in the senior year is never a good move. So, ideally, your teenager’s program next year would still include the next real step in core subjects, like math and science, rather than a bunch of random electives. In other words, a fourth year of math and a fourth year of science would be the best ticket, for most kidsand might be a mandatory ticket for entrance to some college programs, like engineering, for example. If your teenager doesn’t have a rigorous senior year planned, changes can still likely be made when school starts next fall. It is worth thinking abouthard.

2. Just a Word About Foreign Languages

And let me say one word (or maybe two) about one of my favorite, and often overlooked and underappreciated, subjects, and that is foreign languagessometimes called “world languages” or “languages other than English” these days.

As I said in my ParentChat with Regina blog some months ago, you might want to read up on the value of foreign language study in two thought-provoking articles in Education Week, written by Global Learning blog curator Heather Singmaster, assistant director of education at Asia Society?”Bilingualism: Valuable for the Brain and Society” and “Foreign Language Policies: Is Everyone Else Really Speaking English?“:

She talks about economic, socioeconomic, cultural, cognitive, and national defense arguments in favor of increased attention to language study in U.S. schools. She talks about reasons that are important to our country and reasons that are important to individual students. She talks about language learning requirements in other countries and how we stack upor actually don’t.

Some of it is common sense, and some isn’t. For example, here is something I didn’t know, and it should be especially interesting to you if you still have any elementary school children at home. Ms. Singmaster writes about Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies:

An entire chapter is devoted to the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism, and the development and spread of languages. In traditional societies [like those in New Guinea and the Amazon Basin], multilingualism was (and is, for the very few that remain) widespread. While many in the West fear that our children will be confused if they are exposed to more than one language at a time, kids in traditional societies begin learning additional languages from birthand not just one or two. Diamond can’t think of a single person he has met in New Guinea that speaks fewer than five languages (and yes, they are all “mutually unintelligible languages,” not dialects). (quoted from the article)

We have been told that the early years are the best for learning another language; it is one argument that has been used in favor of elementary school foreign language programs for a long time. But Diamond’s work in New Guinea takes that argument to a whole new level.

And, by the way, there is also research available that shows that bilingual children can communicate better with others and have better social skills than children who speak just one language. Some benefits even accrue to children who are exposed to multiple languages, even if they are not bilingual themselves. (Thank you, Katherine Kinzler, in her article in The New York Times entitled “The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals,” March 11, 2016). Of course, we cannot claim that taking even four years of a foreign language in high school would make a student bilingual, but it would certainly “expose” them to another language.

Last fall, I visited a school district in a Far Western state. The state awards scholarships for college study to its high school graduating seniors. Among the requirements are two years of foreign language study and three years of math and three years of science in high school or no foreign language study and four years of math and four years of science. How does that make sense? In what world are two years of foreign language study equivalent to a fourth year of math and science, regardless of which you believe to be more important? If those were college distribution requirements, no college in the country would agree to that swap.

While I am not arguing against the value of a fourth year of math and science (indeed, I just argued in favor of that), I am arguing that studying a foreign language (or more than one) provides students with a completely different kind of intellectual and cultural experienceone that students shouldn’t miss out on in high school. It goes without saying that being able to communicate in a second languageeven at the most basic level, which is all a student is likely to get out of two or even three or four years of high school studycould be a help to students as they enter the working world, especially if they live in or move to a location that has a large population of workers who speak other languages, as many urban and rural areas do.

Furthermore, there are still many colleges, including most of our best colleges, that are expecting to see foreign language study on your teenager’s high school transcripts. Two years of foreign language study would be the minimum that they would be looking for. Some great colleges are requiring, or at least strongly recommending, three or even four years?ideally of the same language. While it might be too late for you to fix your teenager’s foreign language study if he or she is entering the senior year, it is not too late for you parents of younger high schoolers to solve this problem.

In winding up today’s episode, let me turn to the case of Florida. A bill passed in the Florida Senate in March to allow computer coding classes to substitute for foreign language requirements and to require public higher education institutions in Florida to accept two computer coding credits in lieu of two currently required foreign language credits. The bill was later defeated in the Florida House, but other states are considering similar measures.

The sources of opposition to the Florida bill were interesting to see. According to Madison Iszler in an article in USA Today (March 1, 2016, “Florida Senate approves making coding a foreign language“), the NAACP’s Florida Conference and Miami-Dade branch, the Florida chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Spanish American League Against Discrimination offered the following statement:

Our children need skills in both technology and in foreign languages to compete in today’s global economy. . . . However, to define coding and computer science as a foreign language is a misleading and mischievous misnomer that deceives our students, jeopardizes their eligibility to admission to universities, and will result in many losing out on the foreign language skills they desperately need even for entry-level jobs in South Florida. (quoted from the article)

So, parents, beware of such a bill that might be coming to your state. Until we know for sure that colleges will accept computer coding credits as a substitute for foreign language credits, this seems like a risky swap to me. Further, what about the more selective colleges that either require or strongly recommend those three or even four years of a foreign language? Will there be three or four years of computer coding available in high school as a substitute?

The bottom line here is this: Parents, look over your teenager’s course selection carefullyfor the senior year and, indeed, for every other year. Check out what good colleges expect his or her four-year program of courses to look like. Notice the differences in the course requirements among the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. Note that some colleges require an explanation on the application if a student does not have all of the required high school credits. Keep in mind that foreign languages could be a stumbling block for your teenager if you are not careful.

P.S. I know that Marie is surprised that I got through this entire discussion of foreign languages and never once mentioned that Latin is the most important language to study (ideally, followed by a modern foreign language, in addition). Well, Marie, I almost made it. But that’s a different episode.

Download the Assignment #3 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Episode 19: Senior-Year Courses

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

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/19

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/NYCollegeChat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC

Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

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

NYCollegeChat Episode 19 Senior Year Courses
Subscribe to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!

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

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…