The Academic Experience and "Core"

By Robert W. Andrews  

When I worked in undergraduate admissions, I used to hate when students would ask me if AP Environmental Science looked “just as good” as AP Physics. I would answer them with the ubiquitous, “it depends” on the rest of your application. If you attend a school where this is a common question, you are probably going to be fine, regardless of which one you take. Many schools around the country, make it impossible for seniors to take classes in all core subjects.

Without a doubt, the most important aspect of the college admissions process is the student’s academic experience in high school. A student’s performance in their coursework and what classes they choose to take, directly impacts the colleges and universities that will offer admittance. Students will be looked at individually, but also compared to other students at their high school and to the school’s broader applicant pool. Although academic performance is only one indicator of success, an institution of higher learning’s first mission is to educate – thus, they want to make sure a student can be successful in their academic environment. Grades are the best indicator for them to make that assessment.

High School Curriculum:

At many public schools where guidance counselors have large caseloads, it is difficult for them to give every student the individualized attention and guidance they deserve. All too often in these cases, bright students who should be on track to attend a four year college are funneled into multiple electives and out of core classes because of schedule conflicts that are too time consuming to fix. In communities where the majority of parents didn’t attend college or where there are large immigrant populations, cultural mores tend to prohibit parents from questioning their children’s schools.  Smart children can fall through the cracks. In highly educated communities, parents often take over the role as academic advisor to supplement the guidance counselor and advocate for their children.

Colleges and universities don’t only look at a grade point average when assessing a transcript. Admissions Counselors carefully examine the curriculum a student has chosen to take when determining if they are a good match for their institution. The more challenging the curriculum a student takes, the closer it is to the type of work he/she will be doing at college; thus making those grades a better indicator of his/her success in higher education. The most selective colleges expect students to take the following:

·         Four Years of English
·         Four Years of Mathematics(with the goal to take Calculus by senior year)
·         Four Years of Science (two laboratory sciences, specifically Biology and Chemistry)
·         Four Years of History/Social Science
·         Four Years of Foreign Language

Although many high school graduation requirements do not match these requirements, students should be prepared to be taking at least five core courses each year. Guidance counselors will often not push students into a full college preparatory curriculum because it is not a graduation requirement. Students, parents, and/or teachers need to advocate for this.

Students sometimes argue that they are not interested in these core subjects and thus don’t see the point in taking a particular subject. It is important for students to train their brains to learn in different ways; this will better prepare them for life outside of school. Each discipline taps into a different way of learning; it is not only the facts that are critical, but also learning how to learn.

There is a lot of discussion on states adopting a Common Core that mirrors a true college preparatory curriculum. It is too early to know if this will make an impact on students in lower-income communities, however signs suggest things are moving into the right direction.

It is also important to encourage students to explore their own interests with their elective choices, as it demonstrates intellectual curiosity and rounds out any college application.  More importantly, these courses can garner student’s excitement about a particular topic and generate a love for learning in a way that a core subject may not.

Finally, all students should consider taking courses at the Honors or Advanced Placement level if available. More and more research is showing that taking these courses in high school, is an indicator a student will graduate college. Before registering for these classes, students should meet with their teachers and parents to make sure they are requesting the most appropriate courses for their ability. Students are expected to challenge themselves within reason. Highly selective colleges expect students to take as many of these courses as possible, but in many cases students don’t get themselves on track to take an advanced course until junior or senior year. If a student is capable, it is critical for him/her to challenge themselves. Parents may be concerned that their child will have too much homework, but the time and energy spent will open up opportunities later in life. For example, not taking algebra in 8th grade could prove disastrous for a student who dreams of becoming an engineer or a doctor. Many bright and talented students must double up on math courses during an academic year or take extra math courses over the summer to catch up and be able to compete with peers who have been on track since grade school. Not all students are capable of a full panel of AP and Honors courses, but I think all students should be given the opportunity to consider taking a more advanced curriculum. Many students are able to rise to the occasion when it is presented to them. As we like to say at the Schuler Scholar Program: “Always Personal Best.”


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