Taking the Right Courses for College
Learn what classes high school students are taking to get a head start for college, what high school guidance counselors recommend, and what college admissions officers look for on your transcript
Amory Cox’s senior schedule at Taylor County High School this year is chock-full of Advanced Placement courses: AP statistics, AP calculus, AP English IV, and AP music theory.
It may sound intimidating, but rigorous high school schedules like this are exactly what most high school guidance counselors and college admissions officers recommend to be prepared for college.
“We recommend that students take as many challenging classes as they can,” says Amy Medley, a guidance counselor at John Hardin High School in Elizabethtown. “Students need to know themselves and what they can handle. We don’t want to see them taking classes that will overwhelm them and hurt their GPA, but we also know that colleges like to see challenging course loads, especially in the junior and senior year.”
For Cox, the decision to avoid “senioritis” was easy.
“I have friends who decided to take a break and take easy classes their senior year, but then they were blown away when they went to college,” she says. “I want to be prepared.”
To be admitted into any Kentucky college or university, students must meet certain minimum high school course requirements as established by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education’s Pre-College Curriculum (see list below).
Counselors and admission representatives typically encourage students to go above and beyond those minimum requirements, though, to fully prepare for college.
“The Pre-College Curriculum requires only three math classes, but I encourage any student who plans to go to college to take pre-calculus or calculus,” says Owen County High School counselor Melissa Carpenter. “I also recommend taking either chemistry II or physics, and anatomy or biology II. After this year, students will then be required to take four math and four science classes.”
“We advise all of our college-bound students to take upper-level science and math classes their senior year and as many AP classes as possible,” agrees Diane Rogers, a counselor at Taylor County High.
While seniors may be tempted to opt out of a demanding math or science course in favor of an easier class or a free study period, the decision may only hurt them in the long run.
“Our students must take a math placement test at the beginning of their (college) freshman year, and students who sat out of math their senior year often don’t place well. It’s like a rusty tool that hasn’t been used,” says Dean Kahler, Ph.D., director of admissions at Western Kentucky University.
“When students slip into senioritis and slow down their senior year, they often get out of the practice of studying, writing, and preparing for tests,” Kahler says. “So we encourage taking as many rigorous courses as possible” to get ready for college.
Because the ACT tests knowledge in “core content” areas of math, English, and science, guidance counselors often advise students to take as many classes in these areas as possible as a way to prepare for the exam.
But electives such as art, music, business, or agriculture have a place in a well-rounded college preparatory curriculum, too, advisors say.
“Preparing for college is not just about courses and tests,” says Mason County High School guidance counselor Erin Neal. “It’s about exploring interests.”
“As a former business teacher, I know the importance of taking electives and being well-rounded,” says Kristi Wright, a guidance counselor at LaRue County High School. “If students have an interest in a career area like art, family consumer science, business, agriculture, or technology, then I highly encourage them to take high school courses in those vocational areas to learn more about it.”
Students who choose a combination of challenging core content classes and electives in other areas of interest leave high school with the type of broad-based education colleges are looking for.
“We want students to have completed their basic math and science requirements. But even more important than that, we look for students who know a variety of things,” says Jack Arthur, who most recently served as admissions officer at Cumberland College.
Why it’s Worth the Extra Work
Scottsville native Michelle Bishop, a junior at the University of Kentucky, says her AP calculus and AP biology classes “really prepared her for her college classes” in those subjects during her freshman year.
But being prepared for college course work isn’t the only reason students say the extra effort of taking demanding classes in high school is worthwhile.
“The challenging schedule I took really helped me prepare for the ACT,” says Madeline Kitchens, a 2004 John Hardin High School graduate. “By taking harder classes, I was used to hard questions, so the ACT didn’t seem as intimidating.”
Sean Holleran of Hodgenville took several AP classes in high school “just to get some of my general education requirements out of the way,” he says. “That let me take several classes related to my major during my freshman year at college, which most students don’t get to take until later,” says Holleran, a sophomore at Campbellsville University.
Getting college credit for courses while in high school—whether through Advanced Placement classes or dual credit courses offered via partnerships between high schools and community colleges—helps students save money and may decrease the time they need to finish their degree, adds WKU’s Kahler.
“Taking those types of challenging, college-level classes in high school not only keeps students’ skills sharp, it also offers them a way to earn college credit relatively inexpensively and gives them a jump-start on meeting their degree requirements,” Kahler says.
A high school transcript that reflects an array of challenging classes also increases students’ chances of earning academic scholarships, says Lauren Meyrose, an admissions counselor at the University of Kentucky.
“In reviewing scholarship applications, we look specifically at senior year courses. So, having challenging courses—in particular, honors or AP classes—in the senior year helps students’ scholarship applications be more competitive,” Meyrose says.
Focus for Four Years
Still, choosing challenging classes and doing well in them isn’t something only seniors should be thinking about, advisors say.
Since GPAs and course transcripts from all four years of high school weigh heavily in students’ college admissions applications, freshmen are encouraged to begin their high school careers with college preparation in mind.
“Every year we meet with freshmen and emphasize the importance of taking a rigorous schedule and keeping up their GPAs,” says Medley. “After you make that first B, you never have a chance again to have a 4.0.”
“Some students think they’re safe in taking it easy their first two years,” agrees Bart Blankenship, an admissions officer at Eastern Kentucky University. “They think they’ll be able to get serious with their course work and build their GPAs back up as juniors and seniors, but that’s really hard to do.”
The best plan, counselors say, is to choose classes that are challenging and interesting—and work to maintain strong grades in them—during all four years of high school.
That’s Kayla Meadows’ goal. The Owen County High School junior is “taking every single college prep class” she can, perhaps for the best reason of all: “They challenge me,” she says. “And being challenged like that is fun.”
PRE-COLLEGE CURRICULUM FOR FALL 2004
First-time freshmen under age 21 who enroll in a four-year degree program at a Kentucky public university must complete the Pre-College Curriculum (PCC) as outlined below, effective for high school freshmen entering the fall 2004 semester. Curriculum for the 2002 freshman year and the official admissions policy from the Kentucky Council on Post-secondary Education can be found at www.cpe.state.ky.us/going2/going2_planning_for_college.asp. Keep in mind: these are the minimum requirements, so taking advanced courses will help to better prepare students for college.
(4 Credits Required)
English IV (or AP English)
(3 Credits Required)
(See following note on substitutions)
(3 Credits Required)
Credits to include life science, physical science, and earth/space science (at least one lab course)
(3 Credits Required)
From U.S. History, Economics, Government, World Geography, and World Civilization
(1/2 Credit Required)
(1/2 Credit Required)
History and Appreciation of Visual, Performing Arts
(1 Credit Required)
History and appreciation of visual and performing arts or another arts course that incorporates such content
(2 Credits Required)
2 credits required or demonstrated competency in the same foreign language
5 Credits Required (3 Rigorous)
Recommended strongly: 1 or more courses that develop computer literacy
TOTAL CREDITS: 22
A student may substitute an integrated, applied, interdisciplinary, or higher level course within a program of study if the substituted course offers the same or greater academic rigor and the course covers or exceeds the minimum required content.
Rigorous electives should have academic content at least as challenging as that in courses required in the minimum high school graduation requirements. These electives should be in social studies, science, math, English and language arts, art and humanities, foreign language, and, above the introductory level, in agriculture, industrial technology, business, marketing, family and consumer sciences, health sciences, and technology education and career pathways. Electives in physical education and health are limited to one-half unit each.
Source: Kentucky Council on Post-secondary Education
MAKING EVERY CLASS A “COLLEGE-PREP” CLASS
In the future, there may be no such thing as a “Pre-College Curriculum,” since all students will take classes that prepare them for college.
At least that’s the goal of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
The Council is currently working with the Kentucky Board of Education to “require a high school curriculum for all students that prepares them for credit-bearing work in college and/or a decent job after high school,” says Jim Applegate, the Council’s vice president for academic affairs.
“We believe all students should be prepared for college,” Applegate says. “Nationally, 75 percent of high school students report that they plan to go to college, but only part of those students are taking the high school curriculum they need to be successful in college. They have the aspiration, but they’re not taking the course work to make it work.”
If the Council’s recommended curriculum changes are enacted, all high school classes would be of necessary rigor to prepare students to take college credit course work without need of remedial classes and/or to enter into a job paying at least $25,000 with benefits, Applegate explains.
The Council’s recommendations stem, in part, from findings of a study called the American Diploma Project, which can be accessed in full at www.achieve.org.