Course Selection: Balancing Your Child’s Interests with Admissions Considerations

Deans of admission around the country can usually characterize in a phrase or two what they hope a transcript will reflect about a student.  Jim Sumner, when he served as the dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell in the early 2000’s, told me that he hoped to see “intellectual engagement.”  Jane Brown, formerly at Mount Holyoke, described the “hallmark of the Mount Holyoke student” as “how her academic work connects to making a difference in the world.”  Rice University’s Julie Browning searches for students “who drink deeply from the educational pond.”  Harold Wingood, when he ran admissions at Clark University, talked about the ideal entering student as “academically independent, willing to take academic risks.”  Even these brief descriptions provide windows into each institution’s character and demonstrate that the value of a transcript lies in more than the number of Advanced Placement (AP) courses your child takes.

Admissions officers seek four principal pieces of information about your child from her high school transcript:

  1. The extent to which she challenges herself academically, relative to available resources;
  2. The academic areas that interest her;
  3. Her ability to perform, as evidenced by her grades; and
  4. The degree to which these factors overlap with a college or university’s character and priorities.

These four strands work together in an interconnected way, especially at the most selective institutions in the country.

Encourage your child to challenge herself without making herself miserable.  Yes, highly selective institutions want to see that she has stretched herself as far as the resources at her high school allow, including taking advanced courses (admissions officers will not penalize students whose schools do not offer AP, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment programs).  I would not recommend, however, that she push herself to take upper-level courses if her heart is not in it, simply to make a good impression on college applications.    If she has to tie herself in knots with her high school classes with an eye toward getting into college, imagine what she will have to do to keep up academically once she gets there.

Help your child balance her academic interests with the priorities of the colleges and universities that appeal to her.  Suggest to your child by the end of grade 10 that she look at course requirements at a couple of schools that have caught her eye, in case she wants to factor their requirements into what she chooses to take in high school.  A place that requires several years of foreign language, for example, will appreciate the presence of foreign language courses on your child’s high school transcript.

Look for colleges and universities that match your child’s approach to learning and that value the aspects of her education that matter to her.  Admissions officers use your child’s transcript as a principal tool to determine whether or not a good fit exists between student and school.  You should do the same.  If your child has done well in classes that emphasize research, consider a small research university or a well-endowed liberal arts college that supports faculty research, where she will have the opportunity to work closely with professors.  If she has excelled with teachers who assign independent projects, explore institutions that encourage self-directed study.  Help your child use her transcript at the end of grade 11 or beginning of grade 12 to analyze her own approach to learning; then look for colleges and universities that will nurture it.

Interested in learning more about how course selection as early as grade nine can impact college admissions prospects for your child?  Contact me for a complimentary 30-minute telephone consultation.