The last section offered some general advice and information about the GPA. This section answers three specific, frequently asked questions:

  1. Which classes should I take?
  2. How much does it matter that my grades go up and down?
  3. Can I get a C and still get into one of the most selective schools?

Which classes should I take?

The simple answer is: take the most challenging courses available while leaving time to “have a life,” pursue passion projects and develop extracurricular activities.

More specifically, though, students should make sure to take four years of coursework in the core academic subjects: math, English, social studies, science, and foreign language. Why is this important?

I’ll illustrate this through a case study. Fred has taken three years of high school French and doesn’t much feel like taking AP French his senior year. He’s heard it’s a hard class…and French was never his strong suit. And anyway, Fred wants to be an engineer! What should Fred do?

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Well, let’s look at this from the college admissions officer’s perspective.

The high school transcript can be seen as a “predictor.” In other words, it demonstrates how a student might be expected to perform at the college level. Now the easiest class at a top-tier college will be harder than the hardest class in high school. If Fred is worried about managing the most challenging coursework at his high school, then colleges will be appropriately concerned about his ability to perform at their schools.

Furthermore, colleges like students to show a certain baseline interest in becoming a well-informed, conversant citizen of the world. This might sound vague, even hokey, but there’s a reason why colleges maintain a distribution requirement that forces math majors to take foreign languages and music majors to take introductory science classes!

This brings us to one last reason Fred should take AP French—and as many other AP classes as he can. Many colleges give students the chance to “opt out” of certain distribution requirements if they attain qualifying AP scores (generally 3 or 4 and above). If Fred doesn’t take AP French his senior year, chances are he’ll have to take its equivalent as a freshman in college!

Of course, realistically, there might be times when scheduling conflicts prohibit a student from taking certain classes. Maybe AP French and AP Calculus are scheduled at the same time. As a student interested in majoring in engineering, Fred should by all means take AP Calculus and forego AP French. However, the scheduling conflict should be addressed in Fred’s application, preferably by his school counselor. Fred could also overcome this conflict by taking French at a community college. This would show initiative as well as dedication to really mastering French.

Let’s look at two more case studies, focusing now specifically on the choice of AP courses. Many students are unsure of which AP classes they should take and how many they should take in a given year or semester. Such decisions become especially difficult when scheduling conflicts occur.

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Case Study: Stephanie

Stephanie is currently a sophomore at a competitive public school in the Bay Area. She has managed to get mostly As, though also a handful of Bs, in her first three semesters of high school and she expects to maintain a similar GPA this semester.

Stephanie must now register for her junior-year classes. She is committed to taking Spanish 3, Precalculus, English 3, and AP Chemistry. But she is undecided about AP U.S. History: she has heard lots of horror stories about the difficulty of the class and the massive amounts of work involved. In fact, many of her upperclassmen friends have discouraged her from taking the course. But Stephanie has also heard that colleges prefer students who take challenging courses.

With so many conflicting pieces of advice, Stephanie isn’t sure how to proceed. How much would the decision not to take the AP course affect her admissions prospects? Should she take AP U.S. History?

Now before we try to answer this question, we need more information about Stephanie’s college goals. There are rarely simple and universal yes-or-no answers to any admissions question. All students are different, and their decisions should be informed by their specific goals.

  • We have to factor in, for example, the fact that Stephanie is targeting the top-ranked schools in the UC system (UCLA, UC Berkeley) as well as a few selective private colleges. This means that her competition will most likely be taking—and acing—AP U.S. History.
  • We also need to weigh in what we know about Stephanie’s abilities and her work ethic. Stephanie has maintained a strong GPA so far. Her academic history suggests not only that she has the ability to do well in AP U.S. History, but also that it would be only natural for her to seek out maximally challenging courses as a junior.

So even though the thought of tacking on AP U.S. History to an already packed course load is daunting to Stephanie, I would recommend that she sign up for the course. AP U.S. History will provide Stephanie with a chance to demonstrate her academic prowess. And taking the class will show that Stephanie is not the kind of student who shies away from a challenge. Of course, my recommendation assumes that Stephanie would put in a real effort.

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Case Study: Michael

Let’s look at a rather different case. Michael, a freshman, loves learning languages. A Japanese-American with a fairly good grasp of his mother tongue, Michael developed an interest in foreign languages from an early age. He completed Spanish 1 in junior high school and is currently enrolled in Spanish 2, with stellar results. Michael is also studying Chinese on his own. His parents are aware of his talent and would like to see him develop his potential in this area.

Their question is, How can Michael best develop and demonstrate this genuine passion for languages to colleges?

I had three specific recommendations for Michael. 

  1. Michael should continue taking Spanish through the AP level, making sure to continue to achieve high grades. This would demonstrate consistency and a commitment to fully mastering the language.
  2. Michael should also take the Japanese SAT, aiming for a perfect score. This would allow Michael to demonstrate his Japanese language skills, something which colleges would not otherwise be aware of.
  3. Finally, Michael should continue studying Chinese on his own—since he does not have space to add it to his school schedule—with the goal of eventually sitting the AP Chinese Language and Culture Exam. A high score on this test would enable Michael to prove that his self-study was highly effective—just as effective, in fact, as studying Chinese in school over a period of years would have been.

Following these recommendations and attaining the above goals would certainly result in a college application that spotlights Michael’s passion and gift for learning languages. And if Michael develops an interest in certain related majors, such as international relations or political science, he would have a definite advantage over other applicants with similar grades in similar classes but no cohesive and demonstrable intellectual interests.

Does it matter that my grades have fluctuated?

Students who are competitive at the most selective colleges generally have consistently strong grades across the board.

This means that the simple and blunt answer to the above question is, Yes.

However, a more detailed answer to this question would have to take into consideration the particular kind of fluctuation evident in the transcript. For example, junior- and senior-year courses are generally more advanced and more difficult than freshman- and sophomore-year courses. Because the courses get harder, grades received during junior and senior year mean more: they demonstrate a student’s ability to succeed when confronted with advanced material.

This means that a weak freshman year can be compensated for, though not canceled out, by strong junior-year grades in suitably more advanced courses. It also means that even an impeccable freshman year can’t make up for a disastrous junior year, no matter how aggressive the freshman-year coursework.

Second-semester grades are slightly more important than first-semester grades for the same reason: coursework tends to get more difficult as the year progresses. Therefore, the student who gets a B in AP Chemistry the first semester of junior year but improves to an A the second semester is in a better position than the student who starts off with an A but then slides down to a B.

It is important to understand, however, that a steadily improving GPA is absolutely meaningless if the higher grades are attained only by scaling back on coursework, whether by taking fewer courses or by dialing back the difficulty level. Again, college admissions officers have seen every trick in the book when it comes to trying to make a high school transcript seem better than it really is. But when it comes to this part of the college application, nothing but hard work and consistent accomplishment will look like hard work and consistent accomplishment.

Can I get a C and still get into one of the most selective colleges?

I referred this question to a member of FLEX InfoBankTM, a former Admissions Representative at both Stanford University and a top-ten liberal arts college.

The short answer to this question? No: a student who gets a C cannot get into one of the most selective private schools.

Now there may have been very good reasons for the C. Maybe the student is brilliant at math and science but just not that good at the humanities. Maybe the student was too busy studying for the SATs and the APs and participating in various extracurricular activities to find time to ace that one tricky class. These are reasonable explanations. However, the most selective private colleges get so many applications from students with perfect or near-perfect GPAs that they simply don’t need to select a student with a less stellar academic record.

The good news is that there is still room at lots of excellent colleges for such a student. Additionally, if the C is a one-off anomaly caused by some personal circumstance legitimately beyond the student’s control—a serious illness or a family trauma, for example—then the student can explain the situation. Usually, the school guidance counselor is the best person to provide this information.

For this and lots of other reasons, it is a very good idea for students to get to know their guidance counselors…and to make sure their guidance counselors get to know them! A guidance counselor can be an invaluable help in the college admissions process.

By the end of the first semester of senior year, every student has a long record of the academic choices made and the scholarly successes attained over the last three and a half years.

The high school GPA is one area of the college admissions process that just requires good old-fashioned hard work. There are no “tricks” or “gimmicks” to be used here.

So the only advice I can give is: take the hardest courses available and excel at them! Though this may sound heartless to students struggling right now to juggle a heavy course load, this is the reality of college admissions today.

Remember the illustration given in chapter one of the college selection process by the Stanford admissions officer. Think of all 47,451 applications received at schools like Stanford, piled up all over the admissions office floor. Remember that of all these applications, only those that are deemed academically qualified will get on the table for serious consideration.

What exactly gets these roughly 37,960 applications off the floor?

Academics. GPA and SAT (or ACT) scores. These numbers are decisive in getting applications past the first cut. But once applications are on the table, academic achievements no longer play a decisive role.

Schools don’t rank students in order of SAT score or cumulative GPA and then start admitting students from the top down. No: at this stage, admissions officers want to get to know each applicant’s individual story as revealed through his or her extracurricular activities, essays and recommendations.

In other words, in most cases GPA is just an initial qualifier and not the final deciding factor. Still, GPA is of crucial importance, and for most students, it should be their highest priority. Although a great GPA won’t be enough to get a student in—and a perfect GPA is never absolutely required—a low GPA is enough to get a student rejected.

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