Course Rigor vs GPA - What’s Really Important?
There’s a lot of pressure in choosing the right courses for high school. Should your teen take regular classes, honors, or AP? Is it better to have a higher GPA in regular classes or a slightly lower GPA in AP or honors courses? Is GPA more important for college admissions? And what about stress and burn out? Don’t they need time to have after school activities and some ‘downtime?’
Keep in mind, AP, Honors and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses only look good when the grades are A’s and B’s. This is because schools offering theses classes usually bump up the grade points for those classes (meaning your teen gets credit 5 points for an A, 4 for a B, 3 for a C instead of the typical 4,3 and 2 credit points respectively) it inflates your teens GPA. Therefore almost EVERY college recalculates the GPA WITHOUT those extra points. (A few colleges use the extra points when nearly every student is applying with those points.) So if your teen gets a C in an AP class, it will count as only 2 credit points, not 3, which could take your teen out of the running for scholarships if his overall GPA falls below a 3.0 without those extra points. (I’m telling you this because that’s how I lost out on scholarships!) High schools use this extra point system to make it easier to rank students for graduation.
As your teen does his college prep and finally goes to college, remember that taking math at least through Algebra II, and preferably beyond that, will help your teen meet quantitative course requirements. 2 or more years of the same high school foreign language, lab sciences, and history/social sciences are also basic requirements for many colleges. Your best bet to know for certain is to check the college websites for their admissions requirements. Start looking at this early in the high school years and plan accordingly. It is especially important to note that although admission requirements may only expect Algebra II, a college engineering program is likely to require precalculus or trigonometry. The same can be true for a foreign language. The college admissions minimum maybe 2 years of high school foreign language, but may also require the student to take an additional foreign language in college unless they have had at least three years in high school or pass a proficiency exam.
Freshmen and sophomores have more time to select courses that fit their interests and abilities, and that is a key point. Your teen should stretch themselves in those areas where you have identified a personal skill or talent while maintaining solid college-prep courses across the board. Your teen doesn’t need to take AP Everything to get into college, but depending on the selectivity of the colleges your teen wants to attend, they’ll need to take more demanding and challenging honors, accelerated, AP, International Baccalaureate (IB) courses to stand out in the college admissions process.
One of the questions school counselors are asked on the Common Application School Report forms (and many individual college applications) is the difficulty of your teen's course load, compared to other college-bound students at their high school. Why? Colleges are essentially looking to see how much your teen has pushed themselves and where your teen stands. This provides the foundation for the question: “Should I take advanced courses, even if my grades will go down, or should I take regular-level courses and get straight A’s?” Part of the college plan has to be about balance. VERY Few selective colleges will excuse several C grades, even if they take hard classes. Likewise, doing so much homework and taking such difficult courses that your teen loses sleep, drops activities, and is overcome by stress is not only unhealthy, but it also comes across negatively in your teen's application. Overextending like that doesn't help them get into college.
Even the best college plan doesn't always get your teen the classes they want.
Sometimes they may not be able to take the classes they want, either because their schedule is too busy, or because the school does not offer them or it doesn’t fit the schedule. Don’t panic! They can use summers, as well as local community colleges, to expand their academic transcript. Many community colleges allow high school students to take an evening, weekend, and summer classes, or if you are homeschooled, or if they have a 1/2 day in Senior year, take them during the day. Your teen can take high-level courses and earn college credit while showing initiative! It sounds silly, but they are “going to college” in order to “go to college”!
Summer school programs, such as those on college campuses, at private boarding schools, or at local high schools, can be part of their college prep. Such programs can help add courses or move ahead for the following year. So if your teen is a junior in algebra II this year and wants to move ahead to calculus, they could possibly take a pre-calculus class during the summer. (Just get your high school’s school’s approval first.) (Side note re summer camps at colleges for high school students that cost $$$$.: This is about learning and broadening their horizons. Attending these camps puts $ in the college pocket. It does NOT increase your teen’s chances of acceptance at said college.)
Taking harder courses they’ll be better prepared for college and more likely to succeed, from the beginning. Taking demanding courses throughout high school will help your teen build credentials for college. Such academic high school to college planning helps to structure applications and interviews around their curriculum and additional academic activities in order to help colleges understand their strengths, interests, and goals.