Preparing for College

Sophomore Course Choices for Ivy Aspirant

Question: I will soon finish my freshman year in one of the top high schools in New York City with a 97 average. The only AP class my school offers to sophomores is European History, which I am not very interested in. Instead I will be taking electives such as human disease, computer science, and technology, along with the main academic classes (science, math, etc.) during my sophomore year. I plan to take at least 2 AP's my junior year and 3 during my senior year (does this seem like too much?). Will colleges (especially Ivy League) recognize my academic motivation even if I don't start taking AP's/honors until my junior year?

The most selective colleges (and, this, of course, includes the Ivy League) are looking for students who have "challenged themselves academically." Trust me, you'll see that phrase 100 times or more before your last application is finished, even if you're never completely sure what it means.

In short, this is how "challenge" translates in admission-committee meetings: Your applications will include a section for your guidance counselor to indicate whether your academic program is "Most Demanding," "Very Demanding," "Demanding," "Average" or "Below Average" when compared to what is offered at your high school. Not surprisingly, unless you can kick a 50-yard field goal, run a sub-four-minute mile, or can boast of other unique talents (or of a very atypical background), then your best bet, with your lofty admission goals, is to elect a course load that will fall under the "Most Demanding" heading.

Many sophomores--even those applying to the uber-selective schools--do not take any AP classes in grade 10, though most of them do elect a "Most Demanding" sophomore schedule. (AP's are not widely offered to 10th graders.) Two AP's in grade 11 and three in Grade 12 would be considered "normal" (or, in some high schools, even "below normal") for Ivy aspirants.

While you make clear that you are passing up your high school's single AP--and why--I'm not sure if you have also decided to pass up honors classes in other subjects as well. If you are taking the "regular" college prep classes and no honors, will that put you on a "track" that could make it hard for you to jump off and into honors next year? While, as noted above, lots of sophomores don't take AP's, most Ivy-bound 10th graders do take a full slate of honors classes, when available.

So, before your schedule is set in stone, check with your guidance counselor to see if the academic program you're mapping out will earn the "Most Demanding" designation at your school. Even if your sophomore classes will be considered only "Very Demanding" because you haven't chosen the one available AP, that doesn't matter to admission folks, as long as your junior and senior class choices will put you on "Most Demanding" turf.

But, above all, keep mind that your health and sanity are more important than your prospective college plans. If your final course roster seems to cry out "Way too stressful!" and not just "Very challenging!" then you should reconsider your options, regardless of the college verdicts that loom.

Remember, too, that there are other ways to show off your academic passions. For instance, independent summer research projects or summer courses in areas of interest will allow you to pursue favorite fields, demonstrate your commitment to them, and keep your brain active at a time when the sun is hot but the heat is off.