Panel of Experts

Karl Schellscheidt

SAT Prep Expert

  • BSE, Princeton University '90
  • M.A., Secondary Education Seton Hall University '93
  • J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School '00

Fred Hargadon

Dean of Admission

  • Swarthmore College
    (1964-1969)
  • Stanford University
    (1969-1984)
  • Princeton University
    (1988-2003)

Don Betterton

Financial Aid Expert

  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
  • Certified College Planner
  • Principal, Betterton College Planning

Seamus Malin

Admission Expert

  • Harvard University
    Dir. of Financial Aid
    (1966-1977)
    Asst. Dean of Admission
    (1977-1987)
    International Office Director
    (1987-2002)

Easy Courses vs. Hard Courses

college admissions expert advice from eprep.comA question that seems to circulate among high school Juniors at this time of year as they make course selections for the Senior Year sounds something like this: “Is it better for me to take a course in which I know I can get an ‘A’ or should I take a harder course and risk getting a lower grade?” And the answer is: “Take the harder course and do as well as you can–why not shoot for the ‘A’?!”

There are two perspectives to consider here. One revolves around the college admission process and what colleges want to see from you academically. Generally speaking, the harder it is to get into a college the greater is the likelihood that its admission officers will be checking to see if you are continuing to stretch yourself academically. Because they are choosing from among thousands of well-qualified candidates, they can afford to use the strength of an academic program as a competitive credential or “filter” in deciding whom to admit.

Here’s another way to think about it. If highly selective colleges know that they are setting the competitive “bar” at a certain level in their own classrooms, they will be looking at your record to find evidence that you can meet that “bar.” What confidence do you give them in your ability to do so when you have chosen to compete at a comfortably lower level in high school?

That doesn’t mean you should register for every high level course you can get in order to compete for admission. Rather, you need to know your capacity to tackle challenges and make a conscious effort to move to the next logical level of rigor for you in each academic discipline. Don’t over-reach your capacity! The key, then, will be to focus on colleges that will value you for your experience in those courses.

The second and often overlooked perspective on selecting courses has to do with your ability to prepare yourself for the next level of rigor in college. Wherever you go to college, you are likely to find academic expectations that exceed any you encountered in high school. If you have continued to step up academically through each year of high school, the step into the college classroom will be one for which you are prepared. On the other hand, if the academic challenge you give yourself in your Senior Year of high school is not that different from the one you experienced as a Junior, then the step up to college will be much more awkward if not painful.

The bottom line with regard to course selections–and your eventual college selections–is this: Do what makes sense for you. Take stock of where you are on your learning path, set your college sites reasonably and build a strong foundation through your coursework in high school that will propel you into a successful experience in college.

For more advice from Peter Van Buskirk on college planning, visit TheAdmissionGame.com.

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