Rigor is important, but courses should be informed by aspirations, says college counselor

"Colleges look for rigor, but they also look for intentional choices," says one admissions representative.

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Brennan Barnard, Director of College Counseling and Outreach at the Derryfield School, offered college-bound students advice on course selection and how it impacts their college applications. He–and college admissions representatives–said that while rigor is important, so is intentionally choosing courses that align with a student’s interests.

From the Concord Monitor:

Everything in context: Colleges review a student’s academic program through the lens of what is being offered at their high school. Many secondary schools are moving away from the AP curriculum, preferring to provide their own unique advanced courses. Colleges and universities are supportive of the curricular decisions and pathways that high schools develop and will assess applicants in light of the programs available. Deb Shaver, dean of admission at Smith College debunks the myth that “if you attend a school that doesn’t offer AP classes you’re at a disadvantage.” She counters, “not true, we look at each applicant in the context of the high school and what is offered at that particular high school.”

Challenge by choice: Admission offices do not expect applicants to take every single AP, honors or advanced class that is offered at their high school. What they are looking for is intentional challenge in a student’s approach to learning. Straight A’s without rigor in course load suggests a lack of engagement or eagerness to take intellectual risks, characteristics that colleges are seeking. Likewise, a student who simply grinds through a crushing academic load without space for excitement and purpose will present as such in their application – a clear case of where “more can be less.”

Know thy audience: A student’s course program should be informed by their aspirations. Likely a ninth- or 10th-grader will not have a sense for what lies ahead, which is why it is important to have an inclusive schedule that provides a strong foundation. The same generally holds true for junior and seniors — many colleges warn against “specializing” in high school. Students are well advised, however, to familiarize themselves with the expectations of colleges they hope to apply to. Often colleges list the minimum requirements for admission on their website even though the most competitive applicants will far exceed those expectations.

In the spirit of not being shot as the messenger, I reached out to colleagues in college admissions and here is some of the guidance they offered:

“We want to see students continue to take challenging courses – math, science, English, social science and a language. Some students also manage to schedule that sixth or seventh subject – an extra language, science, or math. Avoid the tendency to coast through senior year by avoiding the subjects you are less enthused by,” said Beverly Morse, associate dean of admissions at Kenyon College.

“It’s not just the level or rigor of classes you take that matters, but also the selections you make in given subject areas. Though there can be some exceptions, we are usually looking for four years of all the core subject areas. Things like taking calculus after precalculus or taking Spanish 4 after Spanish 3 (what we call the progression of a curriculum) really do matter,” said Owen Bligh, associate dean of admissions at Providence College.

“We ask, ‘What have the students done with what’s available to them at their particular school?’ We get applications from over 3,000 schools around the world and have seen every conceivable combination of curriculum, grading and weighting. It’s not the GPA that matters. It’s what’s behind the GPA that is important,” said Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University.

“The most common course selection mistake that can be a barrier to admission is believing that foreign language isn’t as important as other areas,” Matt Cohen, senior associate director of admissions at Skidmore College.

“Colleges look for rigor, but they also look for intentional choices. Was there a clear rationale for dropping Spanish after two years? Did a student seek another avenue of approach, which gave better set them up for success? Or were these courses dropped simply because the student was not interested? Our selection process, as competitive as it is, relies on finding students who have chosen to continually put their best foot forward, not just in grades, but in course selection as well,” said Kevin Dyer, assistant dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College.

…When attempting to balance a course program that prepares you well for admission to college and honors your strengths and interests, consider these words from the director of admission at an Ivy League institution who preferred to comment off the record:

“It’s good to bend, but not break. In other words, it is wise to stretch yourself but not so much that one overdoes it and becomes overwhelmed. The point of course rigor is to prepare for a smooth transition to college and to prepare for more advanced coursework in college – not to use one’s course selections as a means of being admitted to the most selective college possible. I think stretching is good preparation for a productive college experience. A father whose daughter was not admitted recently asked me about her challenging high school experience, “what was it all for?” asked this father who saw his daughter’s high school experience through the narrow lens of the college admission process, rather than through the broader lens of preparation for college and life. She is someone who is incredibly bright, accomplished and promising. She will do great things in college and beyond. She is very well prepared for what lies ahead. Her father had lost sight of the value of her high school experience, outside of a desired college admission outcome.”