What Courses Should I Take?

The question came up often when I was an admission officer and even more when I was a high school college counselor: “What courses do I need to take to get into college?” The variant of this question is, “Is it better to take AP and honors courses and get Bs or lower level courses and get As?” Every college representative has the same answer(s): Take the most challenging courses you can and do your best in them; we’d like to see you take AP courses and get As. (Cue courtesy laughs…)

As far as they go, these answers are truthful. Colleges want to see that students are challenging themselves and demonstrating how serious they are about their academics. This is really true for every school of whatever “ranking.” No college wants to have layabouts on campus just taking up space in class, if they decide to attend at all. But there’s more underlying those questions that complicates the answers and muddies the motivations of the questioners.

Most of the time, the courses questions come as much from parents as from students, and what they’re really asking is, “What do I (or my child) have to do to get into YOUR college?” It’s a question that tries to suss out the secret formula that will ensure entry into a particular college, not to just any college. In the world of strategic planning, it takes every ounce of data to put together a (hopefully) unassailable application to the Oz college.

Clearly, the jokey get-an-A-in-AP answer doesn’t really cut it, nor should it. The cruel fact is that a student can fit a college’s profile to a T or even better and still not be accepted for any number of reasons. Those reasons may not even have anything to do with academics. So the search for an answer to these course questions is always futile. Any answer you get begs the question and leaves you no more in the know than before.

These questions also betray a stunning misunderstanding of academic work, seeing it as simply a stepping stone to college, rather than an activity that may have intrinsic value. This attitude degrades a student’s high school performance, no matter how good it is, and deflates even the best student’s sense of worth. Trying to connect taking certain courses with admission to a particular school turns the whole enterprise into a scramble for position as you claw your way up the ladder of “success.” It also encourages that utilitarian thinking to persist through college: Taking only the courses necessary for a good grade or for the best overall GPA.

Notice that I said admission to a particular school in the preceding paragraph. Going about things this way is a virtual guarantee of failure and frustration. However, if you can let go of the desire or need or obsession to attend a specific institution, you can immediately breathe more easily and go about your work with a lighter heart and a less worried mind. If you simply do your best where you are, all the while striving to challenge yourself and improve, you will actually have plenty of colleges to choose from and you’ll be more satisfied in the long run. If you’re willing to attend any school that’s appropriate for you and that you believe will help you develop your talents, then you can relax and focus on the present, not on some uncontrollable future. Students I’ve worked with who have adopted this attitude have been immeasurably happier than those who stake their performances on getting into Oz College. Ironically, getting in often leaves those latter students feeling empty and dissipated, while the former wind up confident and happy, knowing that they’ll be able to take advantage of any opportunities that come their ways.

I’ve often said (not to my former audience of insecure, status-anxious, controlling parents) that the best way to deal with college admission is to forget about it. Taking a Zen-like approach really makes more sense than agonizing over every detail scheming to get into the “right” school. Live in the moment, enjoy your activities, don’t do anything you don’t feel committed to, and ask colleges to accept you as you are, not as you think they want you to be. That makes a lot more sense than stretching yourself out on the Procrustean bed of college profiles. Take the AP course if you want the challenge! So what if you get a B or even a C! Maybe you’ll realize how much there is to learn and want to go further next time. There are plenty of colleges out there who will support you in your search.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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