When Is Enough Not Enough or Too Much

Do colleges frown upon applying students taking a non-college prep class in their senior year?

Next year, when I’m a senior, I’ll be taking 4 AP classes and an additional college level science class at a community college. That being said, I would like to take foods, a very easy, non-college prep class, so I can have a break during the day. Will this be held against me while I’m applying for universities?

*Note: I’ve been playing the bassoon in the band since I was 11, and I plan on taking music again next year too.

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I was asked to answer the above question on the website Quora.com

You’ve had a couple of answers on Quora that tell you that it’s ok to take an easy course in your senior year. One of the respondents is at Harvard so you should take these words seriously. But I guess I will step in and say that the course may hurt you, in part depending on your secondary school, and in part on the colleges and universities you are applying to.

For example, some secondary schools such as the ones in California require you to take what will be perceived in admission offices as a non-academic course. In this case taking the course would never hurt you. At other schools in other states the story may be different.

First of all, you need to find out what the competition is doing. By this I mean your fellow classmates. If you are trying to get into the most selective schools in the country and there are students at your school taking 6 or 7 APs in the senior year (yes this does happen), then when the admission officer looks at your program he or she may downgrade it. I think the arms race over the number of APs a student can take is not useful; in fact, several studies show that beyond a certain number (most say 5), more AP classes no longer predict better academic success. But it is true that Bill Fitzsimmons, the Admission Dean at Harvard, has written that the best predictors of success at Harvard are APs/IBs and AP/IB scores.

Remember that many schools read applications individually first, but as the process nears the end, most go through a “school group review”. What this term means is that a computer program runs the list of all applicants from all secondary school along with the decision, test scores and some other rubrics. (Whether a school ranks or not, the computer list orders students by rank or GPA rather than alphabetically Even schools that don’t rank still give GPA, so that the group of applicants itself is “ranked”). The person looking over the school group checks to see if there are anomalies (someone with a lower GPA getting an offer for example) and checks to see if that person should be moved down compared to another applicant. Or it could be a student with a great GPA who was dinged could be moved up. But when push comes to shove, near the end of the reading season, spaces are at a premium and sometimes schools need to cut out those to whom initial readers had slated for offers. These students often then become a part of the wait list.

A reason to move a student to the wait list could might come up when an admission officer looks at the school group and compares academic programs among students. If there are a fair number of students taking more academic courses than you, then you may end up in trouble. At some colleges admission readers will create a set of numbers that looks like this: 1–5–5–5–6.

What does this mean? These numbers indicate how many academic prep classes (what some call academic solids) you are taking in a particular year. If you are hoping to get into a highly selective school then you should to be taking courses in English, Mathematics, Social Science, Lab Sciences and Foreign Language grades 9–12. Most students actually start in 8thgrade with algebra and some are taking other academic solids too — foreign language, for example. Students who do not have these 5 solids all the way through are often looked at as not having a challenging program. Therefore you should have, in terms of solids 1–5–5–5–5 if at all possible. As I have said before some will end up taking more than 5 solids so the total number may look like this: 2–5–5–6–7.

In addition, some schools also track another set of numbers — the number of the highest-level courses taken in grades 8–12. By highest-level I mean course that are designated as honors, or gifted and talents or AP or IB. Many schools limit the number of honors/AP courses a student can take in grades 8–10 so this calculation might end up looking like this: 1–2–3–4–5.

If this set of numbers looks like other top students in the school then this is good news, but if more than a few have this: 1- 2–3–4–5–7 and you still have the 1–2–3–4–5, then your program will be perceived by some as significantly weaker than some of your peers. Some colleges (and secondary schools too) weight the honors/AP courses in calculating the GPA. Those who have taken a lot more of the toughest courses often end up with a GPA well above a 4.0. Even if you have all A’s, but have not taken the same number of weighted courses as others your overall GPA will likely ne lower. This will affect your rank in class, if the schools ranks, and even if they don’t they will still compare your GPA will others who have applied from your school (see above).

I am addressing this response to those students applying to the most selective schools, where even a little thing like an easy course or two, in combination with something else (a less than great SAT 2 score or essays that are GNG — ‘good not great’ in admission speak), can encourage a reader to make a case that the student does not stand out academically. At selective schools, all the applicants (or almost all) have done well by taking tough programs and earning high grades. That’s why they apply to top schools. If I have scared you, then I think I have done my job. Program and performance are key to getting in at highly selective schools. (There are exceptions, but not many: some athletes or others with special talents, development office cases etc.).

But if I have scared you I also want to reassure you too. There are just not all that many colleges that are incredibly selective. But there are hundreds and hundreds of great schools that you could attend to get a wonderful and life-changing education. I am not just saying this to be nice. There is plenty of data to back this up. I encourage you to read the piece thatFrank Bruni wrote this week for the NY Times. He and many others know that the tail wags the dog when it comes to the whole getting into college game. The horror stories of top students in high school get headlines but the fact is most students get into schools that they love. If you can look at the process as finding a fit rather than a contest to get into the most selective schools in the world then you will be a lot less stressed through the process.

If you are bound and determined to go to a highly selective school, then the next step is for you to contact the schools you are thinking of applying to and asking them about your program choices. The problem with this is that some schools will say they want to see ‘the’ toughest program you can take and still do well, but if you ask for specifics they often won’t necessarily tell you what this means. No one will come right out and say you have to stack up 7 Aps in the senior year, as it is not true for all students they accept. But if you are not ‘hooked’ in some way it is often the case that they will expect you to have as good or better courses than your peers. I do think if you can contact a few of your top choice schools and give your information at least you will have it in writing (email them, don’t call) what advice they gave back to you.

For the most part, I have tried to be overly scary in my response simply because I have seen great students not get in to schools because of a program that, while very strong (as yours is), was not deemed as competitive as others enrolled in the same secondary school or same demographic group. I hate playing the bad cop here, but thought I should at least give you another perspective.

Finally, a school that would base a decision on something like this may not be a place you would want to go to anyway. I think you should do what you want here, but should you do so, you have to be aware there are, perhaps, some consequences attached. Best of luck.

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