Mom is Losing Brain Cells Over Sophomore Daughter's Schedule

Question: Hi!  My daughter is a sophomore.  She has a good GPA (5.88 of 6.00), but her practice ACT and PSAT need some work (good enough for most schools, but not high enough for selective-yet). I think with some prep, the test issue will be solved.  For junior year, she’s planning on taking the most rigorous course load the school allows – 3 AP classes and Honors Algebra II.  Two problems with this:  1) this schedule doesn’t allow her to take the 3rd year of Spanish and 2) this schedule will allow her virtually no time to sleep, much less participate in the extracurricular activities that the selective schools seem to love to see on the application.  So, I ask of you, Kind Dean, which is most important – the “rigorous” course work, the extracurricular activities that will make her stand out, keeping that 3rd year of language,or getting more than 4 hours of sleep a night?  BTW, summer school isn’t offered at her school, and they don’t allow the students to take a class at the community college if it’s a class they offer at the school (like Spanish III).

My brain cells are fried trying to solve this riddle.  Thanks for your input!

Your daughter’s health is, of course, the most important concern. So if her academic and extracurricular commitments allow her to only sleep a handful of hours per night, then something’s gotta give.

But there are a few flags here for “The Dean.” For starters, a junior course load of 3 AP classes and Honors Algebra is not outrageous for any student aiming for the more selective colleges … in fact, it’s pretty tame when compared to much of what I see, even when the students attend very demanding high schools. Granted, I am not a huge fan of teenagers loading up on a gazillion AP class which they then pile upon countless clubs, sports, and hobbies. But unless your daughter’s extracurriculars … which you don’t name here …are unusual (e.g., she’s a world-class athlete, a Broadway-bound dancer, a published novelist … ) then it seems that she ought to be able to find more than four hours for sleep.

So, getting back to those flags …

You mentioned that your daughter’s test scores aren’t in sync with her GPA.  Sure, smart students aren’t always great test-takers,  but perhaps, here, these scores are sending a message. Is she pushing herself too hard or being pushed by others?  Perhaps she needs to lighten her load a bit … her classes, her extras, or both. Maybe she’s earning top grades at the expense of her well-being.

The College Confidential discussion forum is full of kids who sound like they’ve made themselves up. They juggle 6 AP classes with debate and robotics championships, music performances, a student government presidency and maybe a Sunday-morning job at the Bagel Barn.  But many teenagers can’t handle such unwieldy loads  … or maybe they do but shouldn’t … and yet they have landed in families … or communities … where the bar is set higher than they should wisely reach. The upshot is that they are always stressed, often tired, and usually disappointed in themselves for not meeting some imagined standard.

I’m a parent of a teenager myself, and I’ve found that one of the biggest challenges of motherhood is knowing when to push my child to excel and when to sit back and shut up. And there are no easy answers.  Similarly, you don’t want to sell your daughter short–to encourage her to drop tough classes or engaging activities because you fear for her physical or mental health–when she can actually rise to the challenge, especially if she feels that you believe in her.  But, on the other hand, you do need to prioritize her sound mind and body and to assure her that, whether she graduates with a dozen AP classes on her transcript or just a couple, she will have plenty of college options.

As for the Spanish issue … if your daughter has only two years of foreign language on her record, she will be limiting those aforementioned plentiful options. Many colleges require no more than two years of language (and some demand no language at all), but the more selective ones are usually looking for three or even four. So your daughter would be doing herself a disservice if she stops at Spanish 2 (not just because of college expectations but also because she’ll miss out on the chance to learn to speak Spanish after laying a foundation).  So one solution might be to rearrange her schedule, which you’re already worried will keep her up at night, and then she might be able to fit Spanish 3 in one of the current AP slots. Another option would be for her to take a summer class at a community college. Even if her high school won’t offer credit for it (which seems pretty dumb if she wants to take Spanish 3 but it’s not available when she can take it), she can explain to admission officials when the time comes that she actually did take Spanish 3, and she can send them a transcript to prove it.

When my own son was born 19 years ago, I was convinced that the crazy college admissions process was sure to be kinder and saner by the time he was ready to go through it. Unfortunately, however, it only seems to have gotten worse. So hang onto those brain cells because you’ll need every one of them in the two years ahead! But also remember that the vast majority of students get into their top choice colleges, although we hear mostly about those who don’t … or about the ones who do but only after paying a dear price. And no fat letter from even the most prestigious university is worth sacrificing a child’s health.