Preparing for College

How Will Study Hall on Senior Schedule Affect Academic Scholarship Chances?

Question: Our son, a junior, is in the process of picking out his courses for senior year. Every course he has taken so far has been at the highest level offered by his school, For example, this year he is taking 3 AP courses, 3 honors courses and 1 normal level course (Religion). He has worked his tail off and has gotten excellent grades. He is number 1 in his class. But all of this has come at a cost -- my wife and I don't feel like he is taking enough time away from his studies to enjoy the high school social experience. He wants to take a very aggressive schedule again next year (at least 3-4 more AP + 3 honors courses). My wife and I are wondering if we should encourage him to replace 1 of the AP courses with a study hall so that he will have more time to enjoy his senior year (he will still be taking 3 AP courses). Assuming that he keeps his #1 ranking, will the study hall on the schedule significantly hurt his chances for an academic scholarship?

A study hall on a schedule will not automatically torpedo a student’s shot at scholarships or at acceptances from snazzy, sought-after colleges. However, there are some other considerations to discuss.

1. College applications ask guidance counselors to determine if a student is pursuing the “Most Demanding” course load that is available at their school or one that is “Very Demanding,” “Demanding,” etc. Presumably, your son is on “Most Demanding” turf right now and will probably still remain there even if he lightens his load just a tad. But it’s something you need to ask, since the change in designation could affect admission and scholarship odds.

2. All AP’s are not created equal. When admission and scholarship decisions are made, students who have taken the “heavy-hitter” courses (e.g., AP Physics, AP calculus, AP Chem) usually go to the front of the line. Those who are in AP Economics, AP Art History, AP Psychology, and even AP Statistics (a sore spot with me personally) may be behind them. So it’s not just the number of AP classes that will impact your son’s outcomes but also the perceived rigor (and not necessarily the actual rigor) of those he has elected.

3. Standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) usually play a key role in scholarship decisions. So, regardless of how demanding your son’s course load is and how good his grades, the final verdict may rest on whether or not his test results are comparably impressive.

4. Some scholarships are need-based. So if your family has little or no financial need, your son will be out of the running regardless of all his other accomplishments. Granted, most of biggest “merit aid” awards offered by the colleges themselves are not determined by need and go to the top applicants in the pool, regardless of household income and assets. But note also that many of the most prestigious and hyper-competitive colleges (e.g., the Ivies, MIT, Amherst) provide only need-based aid and no merit money whatsoever.

As a parent myself, I know exactly how you feel as you find your son staggering—albeit quite successfully—beneath the burden of a heavy work load. You probably reflect on your own high school days where there was more time to smell the roses … or at least the stale popcorn under the basketball bleachers. ;-) But, unfortunately, our generation has put our progeny in a very different position. Although “elite” college officials may claim that they’re looking for “normal,” healthy kids who are passionate about their undertakings and not for over-scheduled grinds who rarely make a choice without future applications in mind, the decisions the admission folks make behind closed doors often suggest otherwise.

So, before your son finalizes his senior program, you should consider the points above, but you also need to ask him what he really wants to do … and why. He may be one of those kids who, despite the time commitment and pressure, may actually prefer to test himself by taking the toughest course load offered.

(posted 3/30/2011)