Monday, March 5, 2012

Should I Take AP Bio or Honors Forensics?

Every year at this time I get a staccato of questions from students and parents about academic course programming.

Should I take AP Bio and risk getting a B?

Or should I take Honors Forensics and get the easy A?

And will colleges really know how hard AP Bio is compared to Honors Forensics?

And what about electives?

Is it okay if I substitute out a Spanish 5 and take something like AP Art History or Music Theory?

These are all excellent questions.
And my answer is always the same. It all depends. It all depends upon what kind of colleges and universities you plan on applying to.

This is where I often point to the "pyramid of selectivity".

Most Highly Selective (1/8)

Highly Selective (1/4)

Selective (1/2)

Somewhat Selective (6/8)

If you plan to apply to colleges that admit 6/8, then taking the "easier" core class probably won't be a big deal when you factor in everything else - rest of academic program + performance, extracurricular activities, essays, teacher/counselor recommendations, possible interview. But once you start thinking about selective institutions that admit 1/2 like a SMU or a USC that admits 1/4, and on up the pyramid to the schools that admit 1/8 to 1/10 like Duke, Vandy, and the Ivies, then you really have to re-think your strategy.

At Casady, we counsel our students to take the following measures when it comes to course selection:

  • Aim for 5 core classes (math, science, English, humanities, and language)
  • Try to move to the next level of rigor in at least four core classes (all five if possible).
  • Plan for a 4th year and/or 5th year of language studies (if recommended by faculty), especially if you plan to apply to schools admitting 1/4 to 1/10.
  • "Doubling up" in one core subject is not recommended until the senior year.
  • Preserve the senior year for substituting out a class you don't want to take for substituting in a class you do want to take.
  • And avoid the senior year "myth trap": your senior year grades do matter. Many colleges, especially selective schools, will call for current grades days before they go to committee.

In the end, I always counselor students (and parents) to strive to take the most challenging curriculum they can handle, and then do the best they can in that curriculum. The challenge in "identifying the right amount of challenge" is that it is never an exact science. It's often a communal act of discernment among many parties - student, parent, coaches, counselor, club sponsors, etc. What's best academic programming wise for one student then may not be the best course of action for another student.