There are few things that I find really different between the current generation of high school students and myself when I was in high school. But there is one major difference; the way that senior year is considered in a college application.
Back in “my day” most college-bound students had finished most of their course requirements by the end of their junior year. You might have taken the highest level math, science or foreign language class as a senior, if you wanted to. But you did not have to. I didn’t. I took four years of math, though I took only three of a science and only three of a foreign language. I was not planning to take either in college, nor did Rutgers ask me to. So I loaded up on watered-down social science classes to combine with a humanities course (instead of English 4) and pre-calc math. And I got into Rutgers and every other college I applied to.
I could not get away with a senior year like that today.
Today, if I were a high school junior, I would be registering for senior year classes. I would have taken no less than an honors-level course in every subject, excluding Phys Ed. I would probably have at least six AP credits in two social science classes, most likely American History and Government. I might have taken a Journalism elective if I went to the public school where I did my counseling practicum.
When it came to making a senior year schedule my choices would have been clearer in some ways. Honors Physics, check, even though I never got better than a B in the other science classes. Honors Spanish, maybe, but should I go for AP? I got all A’s in Spanish for three years though language drills (listen, repeat) were as exciting as a dentist drill. But I could pick up the language quickly. Would a college admissions office like to know that I could read and carry a conversation better? Probably yes, so I check off AP, knowing that I can get at least a B+. Honors Pre-Cal, yes, and probably Honors Statistics, given that I considered a business major. And one or two Social Science APs, probably Economics or Geography or Psychology.
This is the typical senior year transcript to get into Rutgers today. Forget about an Ivy or even The College of New Jersey in my home state. I would need all APs in the core classes to get into those schools. I would probably be offered admissions to the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers-New Brunswick, but not the School of Business.
Enough about me. Now what about your student? What should s/he, a high school junior, consider when choosing senior year classes?
- The more competitive the college, the more likely that it will expect at least four years of excellence or near excellence in the core subjects: English, Mathematics, Foreign Language and the Sciences. If your sights are on less selective schools you should have more latitude to pursue interests or passions within the high school courses.
- If a music or arts class is on the transcript, it had better be an honors class if you want to major in that subject or take more advanced courses in college.
- Most school systems require two years of U.S. History; the budding social science majors like I was will take the AP as a sophomore or junior. An AP course in European History is not a bad idea. Most colleges now have a multi-cultural requirement when you must learn about other continents. Its a good idea to get a head start as a high school senior.
- It does not hurt to take electives in subjects that might be part of your college education or help you to get a part-time job while you’re in college, especially if those electives carry AP credit or an Honors label. But it does not hurt to gain skills in computer-aided design, auto mechanics or robotics if you want to be an engineer, as long as you take the hardest math and physics classes. It does not hurt to take accounting or marketing if you are also taking Honors or AP courses in Statistics. But the schools will expect you to earn As in these classes if you check the box for an engineering or business program on the application. If you get anything less than a B+ and the rest of your application is on shaky ground, then you might get a less favorable decision.
The reality is that the senior year is not only the hardest, it will also be the one where the college admissions offices will have the highest expectations. If you falter under a high school senior year workload where the teachers have more time to help you and you do not have the added pressures of learning to live with strangers away from home–then how will you do once you are in college?
More and more colleges that have extremely competitive admissions wait to see mid-year senior grades–and they will expect you to maintain excellence after you have been offered admission. There is no such thing as a “senior slump” anymore.