One of the most common questions we get asked every year by high school students revolves around course selection. Often students ask how many Advanced Placement (AP) courses they should take, if they should pursue college courses outside of school, or if they should pursue an International Baccalaureate (IB) program.
It is true that taking a more difficult course load can improve your chances of admissions, but that must come with good grades, an overall record of course difficulty, and a convincing extracurricular activities story.
In this article, we hope to convey how admissions officers view the academic component of an applicant. We will take three cases: the high achiever, the splitter, and the reach case. Most students fall into one of the first two buckets, or have a reasonable explanation for being in the third.
Academics accounts for the base of a pyramid that is the applicant. Without it, applying to target and reach schools is difficult. With it, we need to build a convincing story on top of it to showcase our ability to learn and grow outside of a testing environment.
The High Achiever
The high achiever has taken 8-15 Advanced Placement (AP) courses or is working towards an IB degree. They have above a 3.9 unweighted GPA and an SAT above 2250. The high achiever checks off the “academics” part of the pyramid, but is always looking for another edge. The high achiever should focus on developing a concise and specific theme with activities outside of school and actually reflecting on the work they have put into their high school career. This will help them gain the edge they need, and the maturity in their writing, that will gain them admission.
Here is why:
Most admissions officers will look at an applicant’s numbers early in the review process. The high achiever will get a mention of their academic strength, but readers quickly move on to the rest of the application. Schools like Stanford and Harvard have repeatedly said that they can fill classes with perfect scorers, but have the liberty to choose a diverse class. The way to gain an edge is to apply to many programs and have a specific, memorable story. Focus on the top two areas of the Empowerly Pyramid.
The splitter has a stronger SAT than GPA, relatively, or vice versa. Often they are in the top 25% of their class in terms of grades, and know this fact. These students can do three things to improve their chances of admissions: be selective about course selection, plan out a testing strategy, and build up activities in a cautious fashion.
For splitters, the balance between AP courses and maintaining GPA is critical. In general, one extra AP course does not help as much as another B for students with unweighted GPA’s ranging from 3.3 – 3.7. A student’s gut reaction is important in determining their course load.
Allotting time for 3 attempts of the SAT I at least 2 months apart is important. If this does not work well, try the ACT. Also make sure to plan SAT II Subject Tests in June or throughout the school year.
Build up Activities
Most students do not have a comprehensive and specific story. Students in this category with splitter grades should focus on grades first as they are the base of the Empowerly Pyramid, and selectively buildup 2 activities outside of school.
These students have an unweighted GPA between 2.5 – 3.3, an SAT between 1500 and 2000, and a few out of school activities. Exceptional cases of family situations, special learning, or illness can help us make a case of the reach case to be a splitter, but in many cases, admissions committees see the grades and become focused on the academic ability of the student.
It is very important for these students to limit the AP courses and try to score as highly as possible on standardized tests to demonstrate their ability. We normally recommend 5 or fewer AP courses and a few International Baccalaureate courses for these students.
In the application process, looking for schools that value leadership or other qualitative measures is very important. We recently guided a student in the reach category into a liberal arts college on a full scholarship ride because of his essay on leadership in the community. These are the ideal outcomes for the reach case, and they should not be focused on doing more than 3 activities outside of school.
In the end, the number of AP (Advanced Placement) courses or the pursuit of an International Baccalaureate program is an individual choice.
These three categories should help students and parents think about what really matters in college admissions and how quickly admissions officers read through essays and statistics.
P.S. For more specific information on the actual selection of courses, see this article.
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