Choosing classes for next year can be a stressful process for students.

As the academic year comes to a close, many students are faced with the challenge of choosing classes for next year. Students will often feel pressured and influenced, even unconsciously, about their selection. This pressure comes from comments from teachers, conversations with guidance counselors, and suggestions from a family member or friends. Let’s discuss how to choose classes, and why it’s important to think about.

Context, Context, Context

A common approach is to enroll in the “easiest” course load so that you can maximize your GPA. This approach might exclude APs or honors classes. Students and families will often focus solely on the number. They avoid asking questions that highlight the context of that student and their school. Course selection is relevant in the admissions process because it gives admissions officers context behind your GPA. Let’s take an example from last week’s article about GPAs. Admissions officers review your academic data to assess whether you can complete the curriculum at their university. Statistically speaking, if a student cannot handle the course load at a university, they are more likely to drop out. Universities like to avoid this at all costs.

On the surface, it may seem that applicant A is more qualified than applicant B. Let’s take a look at the context. Applicant A has taken the most challenging classes and is within the top 5% of their class. Applicant B has actually taken the least challenging classes and is not within the top 30% of their class. Now, the situation looks different and applicant A looks better than applicant B, academically speaking.

A university learns about the courses offered at your school from something called a high school profile. This includes information about class rank. Your high school will automatically submit this profile to the college, so you don’t have to worry about it. The point is that course selection is one important data point that provides context behind your GPA number.

So What Classes Should I Take?

The harsh reality for students seriously crafting their application for the more competitive universities is that most applicants will have enrolled in the most challenging course load their high school has to offer. It’s important to note that the most challenging course load varies from school to school. At one high school, this might consist of 13 AP classes. At another, it may only consist of honors classes and no APs. If your school doesn’t offer “a ton of APs,” don’t worry about it. Just focus on maxing out the courses that you have access to.

Not all students are necessarily choosing classes to tailor their application for a specific subset of schools. My recommendation: take the most challenging classes in subject areas you’re interested in, and take less-challenging classes in subject areas you’re less interested in. If you’re a science and math person, you may enroll in AP Biology and AP Calculus while taking Honors English and a non-Honors U.S. History.

The reason I recommend choosing courses in this way is that the challenging classes will take more energy and time than less-challenging classes. You are more likely to invest this time and energy into things you care about. This yields a higher GPA because your effort will allow you to succeed in the challenging classes and the less-challenging classes will be just that: less challenging. You’ll be happier and you’ll do well. The sweet spot.

Know Your College

Lastly, be conscious of any requirements the college you’re looking at has. Let’s say you’re an English person, but the college you’re applying to requires you to take four years of math. This does not mean that you have to take the most challenging math classes like AP Calculus BC, but you do have to enroll in a math class. Otherwise, you will not be considered for admission since that is a non-negotiable requirement. Most colleges do not have miscellaneous requirements, so following the typical path of other students at your high school will generally be acceptable. That being said, my recommendation is to check the website of the schools you’d like to apply to, just to reassure yourself.