College Pete

Are As More Important than APs?

Are As More Important than APs?

Though we’re but three weeks into the New Year, it’s time for many of our teen readers (and the parents who love them) to pick NEXT YEAR’s classes. Yup, many high schools have already distributed 2022-23 course cards and the rest will do so soon. Though often overlooked or done in haste, choosing the right high school classes is actually one of the most important steps in planning for the right post high school experience for you/your child.

Fact: the single most critical aspect of a student’s college application is their high school transcript. The first question every college will ask, of even the most celebrated student athlete or artist is, “How are your grades?” That said, grades comprise only half of the academic transcript-  and are rarely considered independently from the other half – the rigor of the coursework undertaken by the student.

In my practice, we spend a lot of time helping high school students and their families find the right balance, the right level of academic rigor and success for their children. Each student is different, has unique skills, post-high school goals and scholarship needs. Thus each must seek their own academic equilibrium.

There is no magic number of advanced level courses that a student should take. Some high schools simply offer more AP-level courses than others, some schools have IB programs, or a comprehensive AICE (Cambridge) curriculum, so colleges try not to compare students from different schools where the offerings are grossly imbalanced. Colleges receive a profile on every high school in the country and will evaluate rigor on a school by school basis.

When it comes to rigor, the key question is, “how much?” This will certainly depend on the individual student, how much rigor s/he can handle, and the student’s higher ed goals. A great question I often hear from parents and students this time of year is,

“Is it better to get an A in an honors class or a B in an AP class?”

There is no simple answer to this question, but if you’re seeking entry to the Ivy League, Duke, Stanford, or other highly selective universities, you’ll want to take the AP class…and get an A. (If your high school offers a large number of advanced-level courses, and you are seeking admission to a highly competitive university, you’ll need to have a transcript that includes such rigor.)

Some other common questions I hear this time of year:

“Do AICE classes count for college credit?”

“What about Dual-Enrollment? Will these classes ‘look good’ on my transcript?”

“Do I need to take more than 2 years of Spanish (or other foreign language)?”

“Are colleges impressed with the IB Program?”

The answer to all of these questions is, annoyingly, “it depends”... on how much academic rigor your student can handle; on how your student performs on the AICE/AP/IB exams when determining college credit; on where your student wishes to enroll in college, on where his/her actual academic interests lie, and how selective the college might be. Otherwise, if s/he is eyeing a less selective college and can muster a B, then take the AP class…s/he’ll be awarded for the rigor and – who knows? – maybe s/he’ll be able to bring home an A (this is not always the case, but a rule of thumb as far as I’m concerned).

The importance of course selection may begin as early as middle school. Some high school credits are offered in middle school, such as math, foreign language, or even biology. An accelerated curriculum can reap benefits in later years, propelling students into advanced level math and sciences and enhanced rigor.

I have mixed feelings about this. I’m not so sure it’s healthy for middle school kids to be worried about their college admissions prospects before they’ve set foot in high school. But I do think it’s perfectly appropriate for advanced middle school students to be taking high school courses, and I want parents and students to understand that the decisions they make in 8th and 9th grade will impact their standing in 10th and 11th grade, when AP courses are offered in multiple subjects.

By way of recent example, I currently work privately with a student who was recently admitted to Northwestern University. His academic record was exemplary, with AP courses in various subjects. But when I met him in 10th grade he was in algebra II-honors, while many of his peers were in pre-calculus or even AP calculus. His mom regretted not pushing him in middle school to take advanced (GEM) math so that he could progress more rapidly and have the opportunity to take AP calculus in 11th grade. So this boy decided to double up on math and take pre-calc over the summer so that he could take AP calculus AB his junior year. Fortunately for him he had the option, the time (by taking advantage of the COVID quarantine), the foresight and the desire to take on additional rigor. Not everyone has this combined luxury. The decisions that students (and parents) make throughout high school can impact the decisions that admissions officers make during senior year.

As a general rule, students who wish to be competitive candidates for admission should take the most rigorous curriculum they can handle, and then perform to the best of their ability. When the dust settles and the transcript is sent to the college, hopefully you can look back and be proud of your effort.

And here’s an important side benefit: a strong performance with a rigorous curriculum will not only improve admissions chances, but it can also increase a student’s opportunity for merit scholarship.

College admissions remains highly competitive, and in a COVID-19 world there is confusion, uncertainty and unique challenges. With test scores still an optional criteria at many schools, the academic transcript takes on added focus. If your child is going through the process of selecting courses for the next school year, now is a great time to begin to answer many of the questions presented above.

A good place to start is with your child’s high school guidance/college counselor. If, however, you would like additional insight, are worried or concerned about your son or daughter’s high school choices or performance, or how their current transcript may affect their college admissions prospects, or if you need assistance with understanding how financial aid works (and how their high school transcript may affect their college scholarship prospects), let us know. You can email us at, or give us a call at 954-659-1234. It’s what we do, and we enjoy doing it. I look forward to chatting with you.

Leave a comment