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Honors Class with Too-Tough Teacher Vs. Regular Version?

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Question: My son is a high school junior and is doubling up on sciences this year. He is taking AP Chemistry and Physics Honors together. This is so that he can take an advanced science next year. The problem is his Physics Honors teacher is known for hard tests and not much teaching. Only four or five students from his class last year scored an "A." He is considering dropping the honors class down to the academic version and I am not sure if it's a good idea to do that. Many college forums say colleges look at the rigor of curriculum as well. Can you advise?

Does your son’s high school add “weight” to AP and honors classes? If so, then he should probably stick with the honors class, unless it’s already causing him great anxiety. (More on that in a minute.) If his school weights grades, and if your son were to get a “B” in that class, it would still count as an “A” with the added bonus point. And it would look better on his transcript to have a "B" in the tougher course rather than an "A" in the easier one, particularly because he’s a junior now, and the college folks will scrutinize this year’s course choices more carefully than they will look at previous ones.


In fact, even if your son’s school does NOT weight grades, “The Dean” still votes for the honors class if his main reason for dropping down is fear of not earning an "A."  Typically, “The Dean” encourages students to go from a higher-level class to a lower one only if their emotional health is at stake. For instance, if the student finds a class far too difficult or strongly dislikes the teacher and dreads every minute because of this, then it’s usually wise to find a more palatable section.

So if your son is already encountering “not much teaching” and worries that he won’t master the material that he’ll need next year, and especially if he is stressed out because of this, then that might be a sufficient reason to make a switch. I’ve seen students in situations such as this one who manage to teach themselves from the textbook or via online assistance. But some students are not as adept as others when it comes to such self-instruction, and you probably have a sense of how well your son will fare if he’s largely left to his own devices to muddle through the curriculum.

However, if the primary rationale for jumping ship is fear of not landing an "A," then the move is a mistake. Not only will the “regular” section be less impressive on college applications but also, by okaying this plan, you’re sending a message to your son that suggests “hard work isn’t enough. You have to get straight A’s.”  Instead, let your son navigate this honors class with a demanding teacher. Perhaps he will excel in spite of the odds and be really proud of himself if and when he does. And even if he isn’t one of the handful of students who finishes with an "A," at least he may come to see that it’s okay to not be perfect ... a lesson that too many of today’s teenagers have never learned and that can lead to problems down the road.

If your son stays in the honors class, when it’s time for him to apply to colleges he can gently remind his guidance counselor that he stuck it out with a challenging teacher. Often a guidance counselor (who is required to write a gazillion recommendations and may have to scramble to fill up space on a page) is more than happy to mention that a particular teacher is known for hard tests and unforgiving grading, yet your son hung in there anyway. And that’s something that admission officials always like to see, even if he didn’t end up with an "A."

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