Choosing Your High School Courses

Page 217 – The Likely Letter
February 17, 2012
Planning a Campus Visit (Part I)
April 17, 2012

Choosing Your High School Courses

As seniors await their admission decisions, this is the time of year when guidance counselors can direct more attention to the sophomore and junior classes. The framework of the 5 I’s and 4 C’s developed over many years as I spoke with students and parents at these junior  ‘College Night Program’. In fact, I owe credit to an English teacher at Dwight-Englewood in New Jersey for coming up with Inspiration (at the time I wasn’t set on I’s and was talking about Passion). I also owe credit to a student in Boston who came up with Conclusions (other attendees suggested Careers or Cash—neither of those quite worked…) For this entry, however, I want to focus on Curriculum, high school courses, that is…what courses should a student consider as they are weighing options for their junior and senior program (this is impacted by earlier choices as well). As with any advice on this blog, I am making framework suggestions that will not fit for every student, but the advice should cover the majority of cases.

First, since most students will enter college programs in the liberal arts and sciences, senior year (and junior year) is not the time to feel like a graduate student and narrowly specialize and it is not the time to avoid subject areas entirely. Look at the curricula of most liberal arts colleges and universities. There is intentional breadth of study in the first two years, so students need to be prepared to read (a lot); write (most college freshmen seminars focus on the lost art of writing); be literate in quantitative and scientific inquiry; understand cultural and historical context in the study of humanities and social sciences; and finally (like most people outside the United States) be proficient in a language beyond your native tongue. Courses in areas like music and the visual arts also develop skills in logical thinking, expression, cultural understanding, and (of course), creativity and innovation.

In order to connect the high school curriculum to college study, it is not the time to avoid subject areas, like math, science, and languages. (Conclusions should come to mind here as well considering skills that are needed in today’s society.)

Now, I am not suggesting that students should take 5 AP courses in their junior and senior years. All students aren’t going to take BC Calculus. But this doesn’t mean that you avoid taking math in the senior year.

A major disconnect I see between the secondary school curriculum and college curricula, particularly for students interested in STEM fields is course selection in the senior year. For students interested in going into engineering, the senior science course should be a second year of physics (AP Physics C; IB HL Physics). In speaking with engineering faculty and even biochemists in college science, they indicate that this selection (when available) is the best possible foundation for the level of rigor in the science and engineering curriculum. For these students, the clear math course to take is the next level of calculus (AP BC Calculus).

There is much to say here that I will cover at other times, but keep the breadth and go deep into the curriculum where you have strength. And when you aren’t sure, take physics!!

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