Building Your Foundation for College Success

Whether or not you are considering applying to a highly selective school, there are advantages to having a strong foundation of core academic courses in high school. Considering course load and course selection in tandem with requirements for colleges is ideal, but having a completed college list may not align with your timing in choosing your high school courses, especially as an underclassman. The questions of “How many years do I need in a particular academic area to be a competitive applicant?" and the caveat, “What if I struggle with a particular subject?” are often at the top of the list for students and families when choosing classes in high school. While there is no one answer for everyone, there are a few guideposts to consider when determining what a robust academic foundation will be for you, the potential benefits of building such a framework, and recognizing the meaning of recommended and required courses that colleges want to see in their applicants’ transcript. Keeping your options open is one way of thinking about the value in building a strong academic foundation in high school.

Opting for a fourth year of math or three to four years of a language, even if it's not an area of strength, can have positive impacts not only for applying to schools with low acceptance rates, but also for applying to schools when trying to manage college costs. If you're interested in applying to a Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) school, which offers reduced tuition to residents in the Western states, know that residency may not be the only requirement to qualify for reduced tuition. Recognizing if a WUE school, or any other school for that matter, requires applicants to have four years of math or achieve a specific standardized test score is an essential piece of the puzzle when applying to a college. While some high schools build their graduation requirements toward college application standards, not all do.

While a number of colleges will state a minimum of two years of language, highly selective colleges will be looking for more rigor in both your course load and class selection. Depth versus opting for the minimum in an academic area is one way to demonstrate your ability to master a subject and the workload associated with it. This doesn’t mean you need to load up on courses that will lead to an uphill battle. Striking the right balance for you should guide your decisions.

Discerning what a college is looking for is part of the puzzle to know if a school is a match for you or where it falls on your balanced college list. While many colleges list both recommended and required preferences that they are looking for in applicants, at highly selective schools or the Ivies, the word "recommended" can be translated to mean "required."​​ It is also not unreasonable to assume that the applicant pool applying to highly selective schools have exceeded the requirements to be seen as a strong candidate for acceptance. The corollary to all of this is that there are hundreds of schools that offer rigorous, engaging academics that lead to success without enormous applicant pools and stringent requirements for acceptance.

So what can you do if you are not strong in a specific subject area like languages or math, but are still interested in attending a school that will provide educational opportunities and rigor?​​

  • Take the time to assess your interests and strengths to help you determine if you genuinely align with colleges and their programs in a way that will lead to your success.

  • Confirm what the admission requirements are before you commit to putting a college on your list to ensure it is a fit.

  • Consider what your education options are for taking a course that will be challenging, which may include: an online course; a community college course; or incorporating support, such as using Khan Academy, working with your teacher, finding a peer tutor, or hiring a professional tutor.

  • Understanding what the requirements are for not only graduating high school but also applying to college extends beyond knowing how many years of math and languages to take, and should also include a strong familiarity with a college’s philosophy, curriculum, and mission.

Building the most robust academic foundation possible for you is one piece of the puzzle in the college process. Your success, whether in high school or college, can be defined by you. Knowing your strengths, abilities, and interests as you put on a 20-20 lens to begin your college search will help determine the right fit for you.

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