Get Your Teen Weekly Newsletter in your inbox! Sign Up
YourTeenMag Logo

What College Admissions Look For: Customize High School Course Load

When a prospective student is applying to a college, the high school transcript is almost always the most important document in a student’s application. At most colleges, when the admissions committee evaluates your teenager, it won’t look for any specific course. Rather, the committee will be far more interested to see that your student has been successful with an array of challenging coursework.

What College Admissions Look For In A Course Load

“We spend a lot of time reviewing the transcript,” explains Bob McCullough, director of undergraduate admissions for Case Western Reserve University. “We look at what kinds of courses a student selected over time. What the level of the course load was within that particular high school, whether they were the base level courses or more challenging. What the individual grades were, and the trends in those grades over time.”

Of course, what’s challenging for your student may not be challenging for another and vice versa. Just because everyone is taking AP Chemistry, doesn’t necessarily make it the right class for your student. Know your child. If your teenager is overwhelmed and treading in low C or even D territory, consider a more moderately paced course load. If she’s barely cracking a book and earning straight As, push her up a level.

Note that for some teenagers, what’s challenging can be a moving target. They may struggle with advanced English in ninth grade, but hit their stride by tenth. “Make good choices,” advises Terry McCue, head of college counseling for Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “But, don’t drop disciplines too early.” Rest assured that colleges like to see these kinds of trends, she adds. “There’s nothing an admissions officer likes more than the story of the kid who caught fire halfway through 10th grade and the transcript looks like a whole new picture than ninth grade.”

Which High School Courses Will Work For Your Student?

For the vast majority of students, a course load with a mix of classes is usually the way to go. “You want to find a balance between challenging classes and classes in which the student can succeed,” explains Lisa Sohmer, Director of College Counseling for the Garden School, in Jackson Heights, New York.  “It feels better to do well than to do poorly, and parents should want their students to feel good about learning and good about themselves. You don’t want the student to become overwhelmed with classes in which they could do poorly.”

That’s the approach Theresa Payne’s teenager is taking. “My son chooses a little of both,” says the California-based mom. “He does really well in history, so he is opting to try to test into AP History for next year. He loathes Spanish, so he is just trying to finish up his two-year requirement and be done with it!”

Payne and her son are also keeping an eye on the admission requirements of her state’s public universities. “He definitely looks over all of the UC and State requirements before choosing any classes, and he works on keeping up with his business magnet program, as well as swim team and community service hours.”

Indeed, in addition to evaluating your teenager’s course load, admissions will use the transcript to see what your teenager’s passions are. “Colleges want to know if you’re doing things that you’re interested in,” says John Boshoven, director of College Counseling at Washtenaw International High School, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Are you in band? Do you take art? Are you enrolled in other rigorous courses that your high school doesn’t provide? Some colleges do ask these questions.”

Finally, add the experts, partner with your teenager’s college counselor in picking a curriculum. This relationship could benefit them when it’s time to apply. “Depending on the college you apply to, a counselor’s recommendation is very important,” says Boshoven. “It’s an advantage to have your counselor know you personally, so they can write a better letter.”

Ann Luongo is a freelance writer from Plymouth, MA, and the mother of two teenage girls. The former author of “Soccer Mom Chronicles,” a nationally published column (Gatehouse Media), she currently writes the blog, “Soccer Mom Sidelines” (

Related Articles