You have probably been told that you should challenge yourself in high school. But what does that really mean—and why is it critical to your chances of admission?
Believe it or not, getting admitted to a selective college does not necessarily depend on how many Advanced Placement classes appear on your transcript. Colleges are more interested in how much you have taken advantage of the most challenging academic opportunities available to you. The more you do this, the more you demonstrate that you can handle the challenges of college-level work.
Seeking Academic Challenge
Selective colleges, who admit less than 60 percent of those who apply, look for students who seek out difficult courses and do well taking them. In fact, the percentage of colleges giving considerable importance to the "strength of curriculum" on a student's transcript is on the rise, according to the National Association of College Admission Counselors. It is the second most important admissions factor, after grades in college prep classes.
You can find challenging courses through the following advanced academic programs, if your high school offers them.
- Advanced Placement (AP). AP courses are designed for high school students, but the content is at the college level. If you want college credit for taking an AP course, you must score high enough on the corresponding AP Test, administered by the College Board. There are over 30 AP courses, ranging from the sciences to foreign languages.
- International Baccalaureate Program (IB). The IB Program is a two-year curriculum culminating in six rigorous exams. The subjects studied include languages, social studies, the experimental sciences, mathematics, cultural understanding, and community building.
- Honors courses. Most high schools offer honors-level college preparatory courses, which are more intense and faster paced than regular courses in the same subject. The content is not at the college level and varies from school to school.
Another avenue to advanced instruction is taking college courses. You can enroll in one or two at your local community college or university during the school year. You can also take online college courses or attend college summer programs.
If Your Options Are Limited
If your high school does not offer many advanced courses, don't worry. Colleges will have information about the level of the classes your high school offers. They will also have information about its recent graduates, such as their SAT scores and the percentage of students who went on to college.
They will evaluate your record based on your specific situation and will notice any additional efforts you make to challenge yourself, such as taking classes at your local community college, taking advanced courses online, and participating in academic clubs offered by your high school.
Taking Initiative Outside the Classroom
Earning good grades in challenging courses is the best way to show you are an excellent candidate for admission, but what you do after the last bell rings can also be impressive. Just be sure these experiences are meaningful to you and were not chosen just to look good on your college application. For example, if you have an interest in film, you could take classes in film, start a film club, and even create your own documentary.
Work and volunteer experiences can be especially helpful, if you start the experiences early in your high school years and they relate to your strong personal interests and long-term goals. For example, if you are interested in teaching, you could volunteer at a local after-school tutoring center and develop special programs or materials in areas where students need particular assistance.
Growing As a Person
Being a high achiever in and out of school is impressive. But many colleges also want to know who you are and what challenges you have undertaken to grow as a person. For example, someone who is shy might volunteer at a hospital and learn how to talk with all sorts of patients. An athlete might work with physically disabled students and come to appreciate their courage and determination. These sorts of experiences, and what you learned from them, make effective topics for college admission essays. They show the college that you have the maturity to seek personal growth. And they help the college see who you are.
Keep challenging yourself until the day you graduate from high school and you will be amply rewarded. Not only will you improve your chances of admission, but you will be well prepared for a new challenge—going to college.