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