Five Tips For Choosing The Right Courses To Get Into College

The courses students take in high school and the grades they receive are the two most important things colleges consider when making admission decisions.  Let me say that in a different way:  the courses you take and the grades you get are more important than any other part of your college applications.  So as you’re choosing the right courses to get into college, you should keep in mind the importance of the courses you choose when it comes time to pick your classes each spring semester.  Seattle-based college counselor Michelle Silbernagel and I share these five tips below and in the short video to the right. 

Tip 1 – Take Four of the Core

We advise students to consider taking four years of all four core subjects in high school.  What are those core courses? 

  • Math
  • Science
  • English
  • Social  Studies/History
  • Foreign Language

Most high schools require students to take four years of English.  Most require three years of math.  Most require two years of science and some require two and recommend three.  Four is good too!  Most require two or two and a half years of social science/history, and some high schools don’t even offer 9th graders a science or social studies option (which makes taking four years of either quite difficult!).  Some high schools don’t require any foreign language, but most colleges are looking for at least two years of the same language.

But those are just the minimums.

Most colleges require these courses to be eligible for admission.

Tip 2 – Graduation Requirements Are Not The Same As Admission Requirements

Each spring, we get calls from parents and students looking for help with choosing the right courses to get into college.  Students ask, “Is it smart for me to skip a third or fourth year of science or foreign language?”  Or parents say this:  “He’s done with math. So he won’t be taking it senior year.”

When we’re talking about a competitive admission process, there’s no such thing as “done.”  You may have reached the minimum number of courses in a particular subject required for high school graduation, or the minimum required by your state university system.  But we promise, you’re not “done!”  The most successful applicants at the most competitive schools take all five core courses for all four years of high school (don’t believe us?  Here’s what the Ivy League athletic conference recommends to its recruited athletes!).  A core course will always look stronger on your transcript than a non-academic elective.  If you’ve completed all of the courses your high school offers in an academic area you’re interested in, look for courses at a local community college in that discipline to advance your knowledge.  

Tip 3 – Decide If You Should Take Honors, AP or Regular Courses  

People ask us this all the time when they are choosing courses to get into college – which higher level courses should I take?  Should I take AP Lang even though English is not really my favorite subject?  The answer, as with most questions you’ll have for us, is “it depends.”  There’s no “right” answer that applies to absolutely everyone, so you really need to decide what’s right for YOU.  Will taking four AP courses present so much of a challenge that your grades in some or all of them could slip?  If the answer is “Yes,” then maybe four is too many AP courses.  

Here’s another question students ask about choosing the right courses: Is it better to get an A in a regular level class or a B in an AP class?  Colleges are looking for you to challenge yourself and do well.  Take the hardest class that you can do well in – and know that a B in an Honors or AP class is a good grade too!

Tip 4 – When You’re Choosing Your High School Courses, Context Matters 

So again – students who successfully apply to highly selective colleges show they are intellectually curious and prepared for college work by taking as many academic courses as will fit into their schedule – and if your school offers Honors and/or AP courses, you should consider taking the more rigorous courses in the areas you like best.  

How do colleges know what’s available at your high school?  There’s a document called a “school profile” that travels with your transcript that helps colleges get some context in which to evaluate you as they consider your application.  More on the school profile here (you should look for your school profile on your high school’s website, so you can see what the colleges you apply to will see!).

Tip 5 – Map Out Your Plan

Now, take the first four tips into account in preparation for the fifth tip: Map out your plan. 

  1. Four of the Core – it may be a difficult standard to reach, but it will help colleges see you as eager to learn, willing to challenge yourself and most of all, ready for college.  
  2. Think about what colleges expect for admission, not what you need for graduation
  3. Decide if taking AP, Honors or regular courses is best for each core subject
  4. Take your high school’s profile into account.

If you’re able to plan out all four years of your high school curriculum now, you’ll be able to see how many rigorous classes you’ll be taking and supplement during the summer or at a local community college during the school year, if needed.  You’ll also have plenty of time to come up with a “Plan B” if certain courses aren’t offered, are full, or if there are other scheduling issues.

Need Help Choosing The Right Courses To Get Into College?

If you need help with choosing the right courses to get into college, that’s a big part of what we do!  Call Magellan College Counseling at 877-5-MAGGIE (877-562-4443) or contact us online for a free consultation. You can also sign up for our free College Admission Clinic, which will not only help you choose the right courses now, but will also help you understand more about the college admission process.


Leave a Comment

Get started on your future, contact Magellan College Counseling today.