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  • Bentham Team

What courses should you take to get into a highly selective college?

Every year in mid-September the question arises for high school students and parents - what courses should we select for next year? How will college admissions officers view the schedule we create? Should we take that impressive course with the reputedly terrible teacher? Should we take the course where the teacher is great but the work nearly kills students, and some say later that it wasn’t worth it? How many AP or honors courses can our child handle? Some of these questions are difficult, particularly at those schools where students aren’t allowed to switch out of an honors or AP class, and impossible to answer with certainty, but we’re here to offer some guidance.

Bring it on!

High school can be hard, even without the burden of AP courses or an International Baccalaureate curriculum, but the selective college market is insanely competitive. Your best bet is to increase your chances by taking as rigorous a course load as you can handle - which might well be more challenging than what you think you can handle. Do not necessarily rely on what your friends tell you - teenagers are world-class complainers and dramatizers. If you can’t fully handle the class seek out the teacher for help during a study period or at lunch! Or hire a tutor! Tutoring services abound in most areas, and there are great online tutors as well. If you can’t afford a tutor, there are a wealth of videos on Youtube to help you. If that doesn’t work, hire a tutor even if you can’t afford it. What could be a better investment?

Honors classes

Often students who are taking on an AP or two or three figure they should give themselves a break in another class or two by taking a regular level class instead of honors - often foreign language or English. Colleges want to see that you take every core subject seriously - and many are particularly interested in a student who takes a foreign language seriously Aside from the transcript, honors classes hold students to a higher standard, and they come out of honors classes better writers, more involved class participants, more skilled researchers, better independent thinkers, and with superior study skills. These qualities will shine in their recommendations and in the essays they write and the summer activities they take on.

But what about the fun I’m supposed to be having?

Do not worry about all the fun you’ll be missing - the pride you will feel when you excel in the class, and that your parents will feel, is worth more than doing stupid stuff and taking pictures with your friends. And anyway, college is more fun than high school, and life is more fun than college - make sure you’re setting yourself up for a great college experience and a life filled with opportunity.

Music, art, and sports

Unless you’re going to play sports at the college level, or have won significant regional or national awards in the arts, they won’t matter much to colleges. You could avoid them if you really want to only take courses that add value to your applications. If you aren’t in love with playing in the school band or orchestra, maybe take something that will improve your skills, like public speaking, journalism, or something related to community service. Electing to take a class devoted to serving your school or community, holds weight with the admissions committee. On the other hand, if you’re taking five intensely heady courses, a course where you can work with your hands like sculpture or printmaking might be a crucial outlet.


Another thing to keep in mind is aligning your courses, activities, and summer experiences to demonstrate you have depth in one particular area, or are obsessed with one particular subject. College admissions officers like that. A lot. If a student participates in Model UN, that student should take AP European History and AP World History, for example. If a student excelled in AP Chemistry, maybe that student should look for a summer program or an online course in Materials Science, which applies chemistry skills to making stuff. If you want to hear more about how to create an aligned strategic position, contact Bentham Admissions.


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