By Amy Herzog and Debbie Kanter
North Shore College Consulting  

The heart of a college application is the student’s academic record. However, this does not mean that an A is always better than a B. Even top grades will not keep those thin rejection letters at bay. Admission officers understand the difference between an A in an easy class and a B in a more challenging class. Increasingly, colleges have staff members who become experts on high schools in specific regions. For example, many colleges have admissions officers who deal solely with the high schools located on the North Shore of Chicago. They understand the cultures of these different high schools, which are the hardest AP or Honors classes where students rarely earn a grade above a B, and which teachers give the easy A.

One of the most important factors that all colleges consider during the admissions process is the rigor of the student’s coursework. The most rigorous courses offered in a typical high school are Honors and AP classes. In general, it is better to take an advanced course and get a B than take a regular course and get an A. A student who takes the more demanding high school courses indicates to colleges that he is challenging himself. Honors, AP or community college course work on a high school transcript indicates to admissions officers that the student is likely to succeed in college.

Furthermore, it is important to note that there is a vast difference between fulfilling high school graduation requirements and taking classes that colleges expect to see on a student’s transcript. For instance, most high schools on the North Shore do not require a student to take a foreign language to graduate. Regardless, a large majority of colleges expect applicants to have taken two to three years of the same foreign language, at a minimum. In general, selective and highly selective colleges favor students who have participated in the most challenging academic program available to them. Admissions officers will use the school profile to determine how many advanced courses a high school offers and to what extent a student took advantage of those classes. The more selective the college a student hopes to attend, the further beyond the minimum graduation requirements she needs to go in each academic area.

Students need to check out the websites of any colleges they are potentially interested in as early as possible in order to determine each college’s curriculum requirements. Certain schools have specific curriculum requirements, and students do not want to find out junior or senior year that they have not satisfied the requirements for their first choice school. For instance, the University of California system requires a year of fine arts whereas many high schools only require a semester. The University of Miami recommends a semester of computer science while very few high schools require any to graduate.

So, how many advanced courses should a student take? The quick answer is as many as he can reasonably handle along with his other activities. The real answer, of course, is an individual one, dependent on the type of college a student is applying to, what activities a student is involved in and what a student can handle. Students who take on too much may be competitive enough to “succeed” but they often do not enjoy learning, and the stress level can become unhealthy. Students should not fall into the trap of thinking they have to take everything, be everything and get less than four hours of sleep a night.