Planning for College Your High School Path

What Your High School Academic Record Says About You

Written by CB Experts

High school is the stepping stone to your future! It is a time of exploration, self-discovery, and growth. Most importantly, it is a time to prepare for college.

What academic factors are important in the college admissions decision?

If you pose this question to college admissions officers, they would all respond in exactly the same way: ACADEMICS! You might think that what they really mean by academics is the grades you get, but the truth is that they look at much more than that. The grades that you achieve in classes throughout high school from grade nine through your senior year are obviously important, but the courses that you elect to take and the rigor of the courses you select are probably even more important to the admissions committee. High school is a time to prepare for the rigor of college, and the admissions committee must be certain that you can easily handle the academic rigor at their college and find success at the post-secondary level. In their decision making process, the admissions committee will scrutinize and analyze every aspect of your transcript in considering whether or not to admit you as a student to their institution.

What is a high school transcript?

Your transcript is a permanent record of all the courses you have ever enrolled in during high school and the grades you received in those classes. In addition, the transcript also states your grade point average (GPA), class rank, possibly the number of days you were absent and/or dismissed, and the results of all standardized tests you have taken in your high school career. As you can see, this is a very important document; it reveals a wealth of information about you as a student to anyone who views it. Your transcript is especially essential to college admissions officers in their decision-making process.

Now let me ask you: Have you ever requested to see your transcript so that you can review the information posted on it? Probably not… but you should!

Most students allow the high school guidance office to mail their transcript directly to colleges without even knowing what is on it! This is a BIG mistake! Guidance counselors and the staff who work on school records are humans; they are capable of making human mistakes, especially considering they are responsible for inputting so much data for so many students.

You need to inspect the transcript for any errors in courses taken, levels of courses taken, grades for every subject in each year, credits earned, class rank, and grade point average. If you find any inaccuracies, bring it to the attention of your college counselor or guidance counselor who will make sure the transcript is corrected.

What are the minimum course requirements for a typical college-bound student?

In general, the basic course requirements that students must fulfill before applying to college include the following:

  1. English: Four years (a solid foundation in literature and composition)
  2. Math: Three years of college-prep math (two years of algebra and one year of geometry)
    Note: Business math is not considered college preparatory and will not meet the basic requirement.
  3. Science: Three years (two must be lab sciences-biology and chemistry)
  4. History: Two years (one of which must be U.S. History)
  5. Foreign Language: Two years of one foreign language

Of course, this is just the bare minimum. You should remember this rule of thumb: Always exceed the minimum in anything you do, especially in planning coursework that would enhance your application to college. This is especially true if your dream is to attend an Ivy League school such as Harvard, Princeton, or Yale and/or if you intend to apply to colleges with the same high selectivity rating such as Stanford, Williams, or Amherst. These colleges only admit the most competitive students.

What program of study is recommended for prospective applicants to highly selective colleges?

Strong applicants to any selective college should take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them. An ideal four-year program of study should include:

  1. English: Four years with extensive practice in writing
  2. Math: Four years (algebra, geometry, pre-calculus; calculus)
  3. Science: Four years – biology, chemistry, physics, and an advanced course in one of these subjects
  4. History: Three years including American and European history
  5. Foreign Language: Four years of one language

It is critically important that students who aspire to gain admission to a highly selective college must enroll in the most demanding level of instruction available to them at their high school to be a qualified applicant. For most students this would mean taking these solid academic courses at either the Honors or AP level throughout their high school career AND achieving mostly A’s (if not all A’s) in these high level classes. It is one thing to enroll in the most demanding curriculum available, but it is yet another to be able to achieve the necessary high grades in all of them. It is crucial that you know yourself well. What is your academic ability and, most importantly, what is your level of motivation and drive to succeed in classes of this rigor? It will not serve you well to earn a “C” in any of your classes if your dream is to attend a selective college after high school. You must maintain high grades across the curriculum to keep competitive in the applicant pool applying to a highly selective institution.

Is it better to take easier courses and get an “A” or to take harder classes (such as an AP or Honors level class) and get a “B?”

As a general rule, you should always elect to take the highest degree of challenge that is appropriate for you. In perusing your high school transcript, the admissions committee will first look for evidence of academic challenge by examining your course selection. Then they look at your grades to determine how well you have performed at that level of challenge. Admissions officers want students who demonstrate a real love of intellectual pursuit, who are very well-prepared for the rigor of college coursework, and who seek challenge rather than avoid it. In response to this same question posed to a Harvard admissions rep, he said something like: “For our type of school, it is always better to take the most demanding courses available even if it means getting a ‘B,’ but we do hope that you get the ‘A!’” Keep that point in mind when building your schedule of courses. Remember, even if you already have early acceptance, it is conditional! Keep pushing yourself until high school has finished.

What can you do if you have taken all of the demanding courses available at your high school or your high school doesn’t offer any AP courses?

Your senior year coursework should show a similar degree of intensity of rigor as you have demonstrated in preceding years. Even better, your courses should demonstrate an even higher degree of challenge than in years past.

Sometimes, though, it is not easy to fill your schedule in your last year of high school with challenging coursework, especially if your high school is small and offers only a small number of classes and limited offerings. Even if this is the case, you do have options. You could enroll in classes at a college or a university nearby to supplement your regular high school coursework while earning college credit at the same time. If no college is nearby, you could take an online Distance Learning Course. In addition, you might even approach one of your favorite teachers and ask to do independent study with him/her. Perhaps you could prepare for an Advanced Placement Test on your own in a subject of your interest. If you are whiz in computers, you could study and take the AP exam in computer science. If writing is your forte, perhaps you could prepare for the AP English test. To choose any of these options would require ambition, a trait admissions officers would love to see. While you may be able to demonstrate ambition during your college interview with solid answers, a good academic record can also demonstrate your passion for learning and your ability to do college-level work.

Make your high school years count! Do your best! Strive for excellence in all aspects of your high school experience!

About the author

CB Experts

Content created by retired College Admissions consultants.