This is a question we get quite a bit: whether to play it safe and get the A in a regular college prep level course, or to challenge yourself and take the Honors or AP course, but get a lower grade, such as a B or a C. Typically, the most weight given to any high school student’s college application is to their high school transcript. This not only includes their grades, but also the level and rigor of their curriculum. Colleges want to know that the student is actively pushing himself, taking the most challenging, yet appropriate, courses that he can.
The answer that most colleges will give you is that, it’s better to get an A in the Honors/AP class. Well, of course. And most highly selective colleges will expect that you do. But in reality, most colleges would rather see a B in an Honors or AP course. They want to see that you are truly challenging yourself, but that you are still mastering the material. If you’re getting C’s or D’s in the class, you clearly aren’t mastering the material, and should re-think your placement in the course.
Now if a student has all A’s in his College Prep (CP) level courses, it may look as though he’s smart enough and capable to take a few Honors or AP courses but is playing it safe; he’s not up for the challenge. Colleges may be put off by this. This type of student should try to take on just a couple of Honors or AP courses, potentially in the subjects he feels most comfortable in, those where his strengths lie, or those he is most interested in (or potentially may major in).
But will this impact my GPA? At most high schools, Honors and AP courses are weighted differently than CP courses, thus giving “extra credit” to students in the higher level courses for performing well. Colleges typically know which high schools do not use weighted ranks and take this into consideration while reviewing and comparing students. Ask your guidance counselor exactly what your grading and weighting system is at your high school. They should also be able to recommend whether you should move up a level in a particular course.
What if my school doesn’t offer Honors or AP courses? Colleges will be aware of what your high school offers and will evaluate you in terms of what opportunities you had and what classes were available to you. You won’t be penalized for not taking higher level courses if they aren’t offered. However, if Honors or AP courses aren’t offered at your school, see if there are any other opportunities you can engage in, such as taking courses at a local college or community college or through an online program (i.e., Virtual High School). Colleges will love your initiative.
Ultimately, colleges are looking for students who push themselves, who take the most challenging, yet appropriate, course load that’s available to them and that they can realistically handle and perform well. Not every student can realistically take on a full course load of honors and AP courses and do well. Know yourself and ask those around you who know you well, such as your teachers and guidance counselor.
Please share any additional tips you have!
About Smart Track™ Toolkit: The toolkit is a web based service that assists families with everything from admissions and test prep, to student athletics and financial aid. Our intuitive software and on-demand workshops are key components to making sure students find their top choice colleges, and families can afford to send them there.
About the author: Laura Guarino is the Student Services Coordinator with the College Resource Center, LLC. Laura has a Bachelor’s degree in Human Development from Boston College and a Master’s degree and license in School Guidance Counseling. She also holds a certificate in College Admissions Counseling. Laura is at the forefront of the college admissions process for the families of The Smart Track™ Toolkit.
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