Take stock of high school course work, activities

Dear Ivy League Guru, I am now in the first semester of my freshman year in high school. I have straight A's, and I want to know what you suggest as the best way to get into a top college or university. My grandmother cuts out your columns and sends them to me. Based upon your experience, what classes and activities do top-tier colleges look for in an applicant? Freshman

Dear Freshman, It is always best to begin your college planning with your high school counselor. Ask for their assistance in planning a four-year program that reflects your academic and career interests. Inevitably, there will be difficult decisions to make about what courses to take and how to balance your schoolwork and your extracurricular pursuits. You might wonder if you should take a fourth year of math or begin a second foreign language, or you might like to write for the student newspaper, but that means you won't have time for Advanced Placement chemistry. I suggest that you take an inventory of your academic interests and work with your counselor to design a program that will "feed" those interests. It is highly unlikely that top-tier schools will downgrade an application simply because of the absence of a particular class. However, transcripts that reflect a broad range of interests that have shaped a student's intellectual curiosity and personality will resonate with the admissions folks. Colleges review high school transcripts as a whole and add to that personal recommendations, test scores and extracurricular activities. They consider each application as a comprehensive overview of a particular student. Schools look for consistency and intellectual rigor. The best way to show your commitment to academics is by taking the most challenging classes and a full course load all four years of high school. If you push yourself to excel through your senior year it is a good sign you will do the same in college. It might surprise students to know that many top colleges do not have specific entrance requirements. It is best to thoroughly research each school you might wish to attend. For example, Yale does not require a foreign language in high school, but, as a general rule, their admissions people look for prospective students who try to take courses each year in English, science, math, the social sciences and foreign languages. Be honest with yourself when deciding among your high school courses. Are you choosing a particular course because you are truly excited about the course content or are you motivated by a desire to avoid a more difficult subject? Yale offers the following advice to high school students planning their class schedules:

  • Am I taking a well-balanced academic program that will provide me with a good foundation for college?

  • Am I prepared to take college-level math, writing and science?

  • Do I feel challenged by the courses I am taking?

  • Am I seeking a challenge or avoiding it?

  • Overall, is my four-year high school program among the most challenging available at my school?"

Keep these questions in mind when planning your high school schedules, and always strive for academic excellence. Remember that a healthy balance between course work and extracurricular activities will be looked upon favorably by all top colleges.

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