"Advanced classes reflect intellectual vigor even if your grade-point average is tainted by a few B's." The Ivy League Guru
I doubt that many high school students are concerned about their "college futures" at this point. They think that there will be plenty of time for that later. I beg to differ and want to share two questions that forward-thinking students often ask me in my consulting practice.
Should I take easy classes to earn A's, or should I take more advanced courses and risk a lower grade?
This can be a dangerous game. There is no guarantee that taking an easy class will get you an A, or that taking an advanced placement class, will automatically mean earning a lower grade. Admissions committees generally look at your overall transcript — the grades you earn and the difficulty of the classes you take. I do suggest that my clients take advanced placement classes even if they are intimidating. If your grade-point average is tainted by a few B's in the more difficult classes, the admissions committee will be impressed by your willingness to show intellectual vigor.
I have another recommendation to students who decide against taking advanced placement classes. Take a class at a local college or choose one of the many excellent courses offered online. Stanford University offers several classes in math and science that are open to high school students.
These classes are taught by college professors and generally (from my perspective) are not as difficult as some of the advanced placement classes taught in high school. This strategy offers an additional benefit — it gives you something to write about in your personal statement that most others will not have in their applications.
Advanced classes may help tip the scale in your favor. Earning an A in a philosophy class offered by Stanford is not something the admissions committee members see every day and they will be impressed.
In many cases, your application will be judged by your ranking with students with similar GPA's and SAT scores. How you stand out among this group is the important factor in the admissions process.
Question: As a high school senior, is it too late to improve my chances for admission to a college of my choice?
Absolutely not. Students can do a great deal to improve their chances for admission — even as a senior.
I suggest that you focus on the written parts of your application (the personal statement, essays, etc.), your letters of recommendation, as well as the alumni interview.
This is where most students — Ivy-bound or not — fail.
The required personal statement is the only chance the applicant has to communicate directly with the admissions committee so take advantage of it. Draft a brilliant statement. Ask people you respect to read it. I would go one step further — go to your toughest teacher and ask him or her to read and comment on it. He or she may have insights into your personality that could prove helpful. Parents and friends may say things that make you feel better, but the opinion of a teacher who knows your academic weaknesses could be critical.
Letters of recommendation are another subject. Many high school teachers never let their students read the letters they write. Their recommendations go directly to the guidance office, where they are cranked out in a mass mailing to the applied-to colleges.
Take care to make sure the teacher you ask for a reference is in your corner. If 10 students in a chemistry class earned an A, then what can the teacher say about you that is different from the rest? An online class at Stanford or another top university might impress the teacher and give him or her something else to write about you beside the fact you earned an A.
Finally, there is the alumni interview. Most public colleges don't require an interview as part of the application, but molt Ivy League colleges do and will have you visit with an alumnus if possible.
Prepare for the interview as you would for a job interview. Look sharp, offer a firm handshake and be prepared to answer questions about yourself, including why you want to attend that particular college. It is important that you have questions to ask the alumnus as well.