Preparing for College

Is Senior Course Load Rigorous Enough for the Ivy League?

Question: My son is hoping to apply to Stanford, Columbia, Yale and Northwestern. He has a 36 composite ACT and a 4.4 weighted GPA (on a 4.0 scale). He has completed 4 AP classes up to this point and earned 5's on all of the exams.

We recently received his senior year schedule. Fall includes AP Biology, AP Calculus, AP Lang, AP Govt & Politics, Newspaper (he will be editor-in-chief this year), Desktop Publishing, and Cultural Foods. In the spring he will have the 4 AP classes listed above, Newspaper, Banned Books, and AP Macroeconomics.

We hear that maintaining rigor in the senior year is important. Does his fall schedule look too weak for Ivy League-type schools? He could replace one of his fall electives with AP Chemistry, but science really isn't his passion. At this point he's more interested in writing and humanities-oriented areas.

Do you think his schedule is appropriate for the schools he is looking at or should he try to increase the rigor?

I always cringe when I get questions like yours--not because it’s a bad question (it isn’t), but because I hate that we live in an era that spawns such concerns. Your son is obviously an extremely successful student who has already signed up to take a course load that is head-spinningly rigorous (spell-check is not going to like “head-spinningly”). Yet you are wondering whether it’s tough enough for the hyper-competitive universities on his list.

No wonder our newspapers are full of stories of teenagers who are stressed and depressed! Workloads are way too heavy and class selection is too skewed toward what are perceived as admission-decision imperatives, not toward student passions. If I ruled the world, classes like “Banned Books” (love it!) would carry a lot of clout at admission-decision time. But in the real world, not all admission folks will be as wowed by it as I am.

So my opinion here is an adamant, “Don’t add the chem!” But there are a few thoughts I want to toss out nonetheless:

1) College applications ask guidance counselors to indicate whether each student’s course load is “Most Demanding,” “Very Demanding,” “Demanding,” etc. when compared to what is available. Check with your son’s counselor to make sure that his load will earn the “Most Demanding” designation, which Stanford, Yale, et al will expect. (I can’t imagine that it won’t, but I don’t know anything about your son’s school, and with today’s admissions insanity, it’s hard to predict what is “normal” anymore.)

2) You don’t mention foreign language. As you probably know, the most selective colleges favor applicants who have taken at least four years of the same foreign language. Presumably, your son has already done this (or at least he’s taken three years, which isn’t as good as four but not a deal-breaker either).

3) I’m not seeing your son’s senior schedule in the context of his entire high school program. I assume that he’s taken a science every year so far. Does his transcript include both chem and physics (or at least one of the two)? If not, the most exacting admission officers may feel that his program is a bit weak in science.

Although I do feel that your son’s schedule is plenty strong, do keep in mind that having the “right” courses, grades, and test scores only gets an candidate to outside of the Ivy gates. Then admission officials ask, “What’s special about this kid?” Even top-flight responsibilities like being editor-in-chief of the student newspaper don’t necessarily make applicants stand out at the most sought-after schools.

That’s the bad news. But the good news is that your son is sure to have many colleges that will welcome him. This crazy process does somehow usually end in a “meant to be” kind of way (whether it feels that way or not at the time).

Good luck!

(posted 7/26/2011)