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Posted at 11:57 AM ET, 02/22/2010

The high school courses students need for college

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is college admissions consultant Bruce Vinik, president of Vinik Educational Placement Services, Inc., in Cabin John, Md.

By Bruce Vinik
It’s that time of year again. Pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training and high school students are puzzling over which classes to take next fall. The choices students make do matter. Outside of grades, nothing is more important in college admissions than the classes kids take in high school. “Strength of Program” is a big deal.

Let’s start with the basics. Colleges expect students to take at least five core academic subjects every year of high school -- English, social studies, science, math and foreign language.

In a perfect world, students would take each core subject every year. But the world isn’t perfect and colleges don’t expect kids to be. As long as students take each core subject through eleventh grade, they should feel free to pursue their particular academic interests in greater depth during twelfth grade. There’s nothing wrong with dropping social studies senior year in order to double up on science.

Speaking of senior year, there’s a dangerous rumor making the rounds in high school corridors everywhere --that twelfth grade is a time to coast and that all students need to do in their final year of high school is take the minimum number of required courses to graduate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Colleges pay careful attention to the classes seniors take and the grades they earn. Senior year is actually a time to step up.

Beyond the basics, most colleges expect students to challenge themselves in the classroom by doing advanced course work when it is available in their schools.

For ninth and tenth graders, this typically means taking honors courses or the occasional Advanced Placement (AP) course; for eleventh and twelfth graders, this means AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes.

Colleges like honors courses but love AP and IB courses. There is no substitute for a strong academic program in high school. As a rule, students who intend to apply to the most selective colleges should plan on taking five or more AP/IB courses during their last two years of high school. Those who intend to apply to less competitive colleges can take fewer.

But a challenging academic program in high school is helpful in college admissions only if students are able to manage their lives successfully. There’s no reason to load up on advanced courses only to earn poor grades and suffer through piles of homework and sleepless nights.

The high school years should be far more than a race to get into college They should include plenty of time to hang out with family and friends, go to movies, museums and ballgames, and sleep until noon on weekends. Balance is essential. After all, kids need to be kids.


Bruce Vinik, president of Vinik Educational Placement Services, Inc., in Cabin John, Md., worked for 25 years in schools. At private Georgetown Day School, he served as director of college counseling, director of admissions and financial aid, and as assistant middle school principal. He was the high school principal at private Barrie School in Maryland, and has taught history, English and math at the middle and high school levels.

Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at it!

By Valerie Strauss  | February 22, 2010; 11:57 AM ET
Categories:  Bruce Vinik, College Admissions, Higher Education  | Tags:  college admissions  
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It is refreshing to read that it's important for students to have balanced lives; it would be wonderful to see that perspective extended to the hardcore academic curriculum.....I'm hoping for someone 'politic' to speak up for the humanities and the arts that rightfully belong as part of a well-rounded curriculum - NOT extracurricular. Subjects like philosophy,music,art,& poetry address the core of a person. Core=coeur=heart.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 22, 2010 11:30 PM | Report abuse

As a parent of a high school senior I can tell you from first hand experience that a B on a transcript glows as if radioactive. If that B is in an AP class it is still a B, that B can mean the difference between a highly selective college and going to the local state university. I will not allow my second child to sign up for any more AP classes than those required by the program he is already committed to. The worst part about the whole AP program is that the high school classes are much more difficult than the same course at a college. Taking them while attending classes for 6-7 hours a day 5 days a week, rather than the 3 hours a week, 15 hours total class time as a college student is just plain cruel. The College Board and ETS need to be shut down.

Posted by: SactoKen | February 23, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

SactoKen - you are so absolutely correct!You have described my daughter's exact experience, especially the part about the courses being even more difficult than the college counterparts;in my daughter's case,she took a Russian literature course that required us going to a GRADUATE library to locate sources, and she had to read seven huge tomes in one semester. All this on top of six other very demanding classes. I think many teachers of these high school AP classes wish to teach in college, and they use these HS students to up their resumes in hopes of obtaining a college teaching position - without regard for the reality of a high school students' life.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 23, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

SactoKen, that was my experience, as well. I took AP Gov't, earned a 3 on the test, and needed to take an upper-level poli-sci course to get credit for Am. Gov't. Since I didn't need any other poli-sci courses, I opted to take the college's gov't course, while the material was still fresh in my head. It was FAR easier than my high school course had been, with few requirements beyond a couple of tests. In high school, we'd been required to write like crazy.

I don't regret taking the AP course, only because that teacher actually improved my thinking and writing skills tremendously, which helped me in every other part of college, but the thought of taking three such courses in one year is an insanity that I watched many of my friends suffer through.

My husband and I plan to homeschool our children, and let them take courses at the community college as soon as they're allowed (at 16). They'll earn college credit through a flexible schedule, and have "real" grades on their transcript (not just a home-school transcript) when they apply to the university.

If so many students are so ready for college work, why do we make the stay in high school until they're 18? The whole premise of AP courses seems absurd to me, when looked at from that perspective. It's one thing to be great at math and take an AP math course, but if you're taking (as many students do) four or five AP classes in the same year, something's wrong with the system.

Posted by: LadybugLa | February 23, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

I think that perhaps college admissions officers should reevaluate their admissions criteria given that less than 50% of students who start college ever graduate.

Why doesn't anyone ever challenge the notion of the so-called "core curriculum" and how those courses mostly operate in a vacuum?

The core curriculum concept was developed in 1893 by a "Committee of Ten". Shouldn't we perhaps at least examine some new educational possibilities now that it is the year 2010?

I have been teaching high school computer-aided-design (CAD) classes for over 20 years. Almost every one of my students that have gone on to become successful engineers and architects that I remain in contact with have credited my courses as some of the most valuable classes they took in high school or college.

Classes such a CAD or other technical courses have the potential to be an excellent vehicle for delivering important concepts taught in "core" classes while making those concepts relative to "real life" ideas that many students can relate to.

Furthermore, I have been told that many college admissions guidelines discard grades earned in classes like CAD and only consider the "core" classes.

I just believe that we are doing a disservice to many of our intelligent students who have much potential by trying to always force them into "cookie-cutter" curriculum ideas.

As a result, that could be one of the reasons for the current college dropout rate.

Posted by: MisterRog | February 23, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

My mother has been a guidance counselor for over two decades at a local high school. Over the years, she number of AP courses she recommends to students applying to the [most] competitive schools has increased. She used to suggest four-five AP courses--one in each core area and perhaps a foreign language-- for all of one's high school career. However, as more high schools have started eliminating GT or honors options for 11th and 12th grade, those GT/honors students, are now taking 2 AP courses junior year and then four or five courses senior year. I graduated from high school in 2003, and I took nine AP courses: 1 as a sophomore, four as a junior and four a senior. My own counselor recommended against taking five AP courses a year, but many of my friends did.

In addition to taking high level courses needed for college, these courses are also needed to be competitive in high school class rank. Of seven students who graduated with a 4.0 or higher my year, six of us had more than seven AP courses.

Once I got to college and worked in admissions, I realized that my transcript was what the admissions officers expected to see: taking advantage of the most challenging courses YOUR school offers; completing 4+ years of a single foreign language; and taking all core subjects for four years, each culminating with AP (or the highest level your school offers).

Posted by: DCgalnSeattle | February 24, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

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