Your junior and senior years are important, but they're not the only part of your high school education that matter to colleges. Your overall GPA retains the results of all your years, and admissions officers will consider your academic rigor — that is, the types of courses you were taking all the way up to your graduation. This doesn't mean you need to immediately flood your schedule with extra classes, and the point at which you should add honors or AP courses depends heavily upon what kind of student you are. However, here are some general guidelines to help you put together a solid plan for each year.
First Years: Lay the Groundwork
Crafting a schedule for any year of high school should follow the general rule of five solid subjects each year: Math, Social Studies, English, Science and Foreign Language. So while it might be enticing to start off with a lighter schedule, you should at least meet these requirements. (Most schools will require these subjects anyway, which helps make your choice a little easier!)
For your first year, ask yourself how much more you can take while still being successful with your grades. The last thing you want to do is take classes that are too difficult and then have poor grades on your transcript from the start. You also might want to leave yourself some time to find extracurricular activities and to establish good relationships with your favorite teachers.
Sophomores, Consider APs
Sophomore year is usually when students first consider taking Advanced Placement classes. However, I don't suggest just tacking on as many as possible. Instead, look ahead to junior and senior years: What courses do you plan to take then? If there's anything you've got your eye on that has prerequisites, you should tackle those during your sophomore year so you have all of your options later on. Once you've got those classes taken care of, add the AP and Honors classes you feel comfortable managing in addition to the rest of your workload.
Juniors, Shine Your Brightest
It's common knowledge that the most important year of your high school career is junior year. These grades will be of supreme importance to colleges, both for GPA reasons and to gauge the rigor of your academic record. If you haven't already, now is the perfect time to heighten the intensity of your schedule with AP and Honors classes.
Now, it's totally normal for students to be concerned about that added rigor — but don't fret! Look at it this way: Oftentimes, schools will award weight to AP grades, making a lower grade in an AP class more equivalent to a higher grade in an easier class. The difference may pay off when a college sees that you chose to challenge yourself, even if you didn't score as high as you might have in a non-AP or -honors course.
Seniors, Finish Strong
The temptation to relax during your senior year can be strong — chances are high that you've gotten the bulk of your college applications out of the way already! — but I urge you to stay focused during your last year of high school. Colleges will often assess your senior year schedule rather than your actual final grades, but many will still request a final transcript upon completion. That means it's important to finish strong! Plus, if you've been wait-listed by your dream school, strong grades during senior year may help tip the scales in your favor.
So, while the bulk of your college process will take place during your junior and senior years, there's still work to be done every year of high school! Thankfully, you don't have to work your way through the process alone. Whether you're feeling overwhelmed or simply in need of a fresh perspective, you can always talk to your school counselor or, if you have the available resources, hire an independent counselor.
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