Admissions

AP Econ Vs. Four Years of Foreign Language?

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My son wants to take AP Economics instead of AP Spanish senior year because they are offered at same time and he cannot take both. He wants to study political science and economics in college, so he thinks the high school economics class would be more beneficial. He contacted one school's admissions office about this, and they told him they prefer four units of foreign language, but that his counselor should discuss why he made the decision to drop Spanish in the recommendation letter, and that he should also mention on the Common App why he didn't take a fourth year of foreign language. In your opinion, are they really okay with it, or is this response really politely advising against it? 

Back when “The Dean” was in high school many moons ago, we usually selected the classes we wanted without considering what the college folks expected. Today, however, students (and their parents) often wake up in the wee hours worrying about making the “wrong” choices, fearful of torpedoing admission odds by selecting a subject that sounds engaging or that meshes with future plans but isn’t on the elite colleges’ hit parade of imperatives.


Yet even if you’ve lost some sleep over your son’s current dilemma, you’ve done everything right so far, and you also got the perfect answer from the admission official you contacted. (“The Dean” is assuming, of course, that your son has already taken three years of Spanish, right? While some of the pickiest colleges “require” or at least “recommend” four years of the same language, there is wiggle room to do three. Two years of language, on the other hand, can put an applicant on thinner ice, so please write back if that’s your son’s situation, although it seems unlikely if he’s ready for AP.)

While, in this case, I do feel that the admission officer has given your son a full-on green light to take econ and is not “politely” warning against it, I also think you’re wise to not entirely trust the “party line” responses that can come from admission staff.  For instance, I remember attending an info session where I heard a Harvard official answer a question from a worried eleventh-grader who had to choose between his beloved band and calculus in his senior year. The Harvard guy insisted that the boy should follow his heart, even if it meant winding up his high school math career with junior pre-calc. This “Dean’s” answer, on the other hand, would have been more along the lines of, “Unless you think you’ll be playing a solo at Carnegie Hall someday very soon, take the calculus or opt for an online, summer or evening community college calc class in order to stick with band, if you want to keep your Harvard hopes alive.”

It does make me nuts whenever I hear of teenagers who sacrifice a favorite subject in deference to what “looks good” on applications. But unfortunately, at the hyper-competitive colleges, admission folks can be less flexible about allowing students to pursue passions than they may publicly concede. In your son’s case, however, the AP Econ selection makes total sense. So all he needs to do is to provide the explanation for his choice in the “Additional Information” section of his applications and have his guidance counselor mention it in his recommendation as well, just as you’ve already been advised. And I promise you that, if your son is not accepted by his top-choice colleges, it won’t be because of this decision.

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