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Articles / Preparing for College / Senior Year Strategy: Can You Drop Math? Quit Soccer? Go Abroad?

Senior Year Strategy: Can You Drop Math? Quit Soccer? Go Abroad?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | July 26, 2021
Woman Looking At Computer Calendar and Holding Paper
Photo by Surface on Unsplash

Will Moving Senior Year Affect College Admissions?

Question: My daughter, a junior in high school, holds leadership roles in more than four clubs at her current school, but we may have to move to another state.

How much will moving senior year affect her college application?

The Dean's answer:

Switching high schools (and home states) in senior year can be tough on many teenagers who never quite make peace with the decision, although there are definitely those out there who welcome a change… even if their delight is far from immediate. So how your daughter fares overall will depend a lot on which of these camps she falls in. She may find it exciting to explore new surroundings, to make new friends, and to test-drive opportunities she doesn't have where she's living now. Or, she may spend the year ahead glued to TikTok.

But, from a college-admission perspective, there can actually be more pros than cons, especially if your daughter takes advantage of the move, however traumatic it may initially seem.

When it's time to apply to college, your daughter can report the leadership positions she relinquished when she had to move (using the “Additional Information" section of her applications or an extra unsolicited essay or possibly her primary essay). However, if she is aiming for the Ivies and other uber-selective institutions, then leadership roles in school clubs are typically considered a worthwhile use of time but are otherwise viewed as ho-hum. The most sought-after colleges are overrun with Key Club presidents, Debate Society secretaries, and Model UN treasurers. So holding positions such as those won't really move the needle at the hyper-competitive places. And, thus, giving them up won't either.

At other selective but not impossible-dream schools, admission committees will be understanding of your daughter's circumstances and will give her some “credit" for the elections she won, even if she was never able to carry out her leadership duties.

The silver lining to this situation is that, by finding herself on unfamiliar turf next fall and without the to-do list that her club responsibilities would have required at her former school, your daughter may be able to indulge in new interests or spend more time on older, neglected ones. And these activities could actually stand out more on college applications than the usual-suspect school clubs would have done.

For instance, you daughter may enjoy having extra hours to pursue individual undertakings (photography, painting, cooking, hiking … ) or she might even turn the stress of her 12th-grade relocation into an extracurricular “activity" by creating a guidebook, blog, screenplay, short story, etc. aimed at other students who end up in similar straits. She could get an after-school job (admission folks seem to love to see applicants scooping sundaes and flipping burgers!). If your move means strikingly different surroundings (from urban to rural or vice versa), your daughter could write an amusing college essay about being a newbie in 4-H, making her first-ever eye-contact with a rooster, or about getting so lost on the subway that she actually crossed state lines!

Starting a new school as a senior will definitely mean that your daughter loses … well … seniority. She won't run the clubs and she may even get opted out of her top-choice classes. She will probably have to rely on teachers from her previous school for recommendations and she won't be able to count on her new guidance counselor to understand her needs … or to write a glowing recommendation. But it will also give her a chance to reinvent herself, which she may find intriguing and which could ultimately even help her to stand in the crowd at admissions-verdict time. So she should definitely explain her circumstances to admission officers in essays, interviews, supplemental letters … whatever it takes. But she should endeavor to put a positive spin on her experience as she also addresses the challenges. If she is able to show that she has embraced the move and learned from it, despite the inevitable drawbacks, it's likely that admission officials will appreciate her positive attitude and will recognize that, having survived such a big change already, she is more likely to make a seamless adjustment to college than some of her classmates will.

Should I Start Doing Community Service Senior Year?

Question: Do all college applications ask about community service or is it just extracurriculars? I'm very active in school... just not so much in the community.

Is senior year too late to start doing community service?

The Dean's Answer:

College applications ask students to list their most meaningful extracurricular, volunteer, and work experiences. This list can even include personal interests or hobbies that a student pursues independently, not just organized school clubs or community groups. So your son will have lots of wiggle room when it comes to deciding which of his undertakings to highlight.

Senior year is not necessarily too late to “beef up” a scrawny resume, but admission folks will look askance if a host of new endeavors emerge in 12th grade and seem suspiciously like application window dressing.

Your son may be better served by taking current activities to a higher or different level. For instance, if Scrabble is a longtime hobby of his, he could join a local club and compete in regional or even national competitions. If he’s always enjoyed film-making or creative writing, he could teach these skills in an after-school program that he founds himself in a local elementary or community center.

Most college admission officials are looking for commitment and longevity in activities rather than at the length of the list. So my advice would be for your son to add no more than one or two new ventures as a senior and, instead, focus on expanding his present undertakings.

Originally posted 4/6/2012

Can I Drop Math My Senior Year?

Question: I realize that it is important to take on a vigorous course load my senior year. Does it matter exactly what it is? I really can't stand taking Math. I have taken honors math all through high school. I am not planning on attending any Ivy League schools, basically just a step or two below them.

Would it be really damaging to drop math and take something like another science course instead?

The Dean's Answer:

For the level of colleges you're shooting for, it appears to me that you should have no problem moving away from math and into a science for your senior schedule. As long as you have met the minimum entrance requirements of your candidate colleges (usually posted on their Web site's admissions page), you should be looking quite good, assuming that you can meet their other admission criteria.

The important issue, as always with high school course schedules, is to take solid, challenging courses. It's fine to take constructive electives that parallel your passions, but don't take electives just to make things easy on yourself. It looks like you're making a sensible decision. Follow through with your counselor to make sure that everything is on track for satisfying your graduation requirements.

Does an Aspiring Artist Need To Take Calculus Senior Year?


My daughter’s counselor is insisting she take a math senior year. She has taken advanced math classes since 8th grade (algebra I, geometry advanced, algebra II advanced, pre-calculus advanced) and has no desire to take another math class that she will not enjoy or use (she wants to get a BFA in visual arts). Her counselor is strongly encouraging her to take Calculus even though none of the colleges she interested in are requiring 4 years of math. I’d prefer she take an academic class somewhat related to her intended major (she is thinking Anatomy might be useful) and maintain a higher GPA.

Is not taking math senior year a negative if you plan to apply to college as an art major?

The Dean's Answer:

If your daughter is applying to hyper-selective colleges (e.g., the Ivies or any place that admits roughly 20 percent of its applicants, or fewer) then, unfortunately, senior calculus is probably good idea. Well, frankly, “The Dean” chokes a bit to say this since I do feel that, by 12th grade, a student who’s aiming for a BFA and who has endured as much math already as your daughter has really doesn’t need to continue with yet another math class. Even so, a lot of college officials who work at the most sought-after schools and who seem quick to tell kids to “follow their passions” are also the first ones to shunt an application into the Reject Pile when class choices are not viewed as adequately rigorous. At the Ivies and their ilk, the majority of successful applicants have taken math through calculus (and, often AP Calculus) regardless of prospective major.

BUT … if your daughter is not aiming for such schools, then anatomy is a great choice. As a science class, it will balance out the arts and humanities classes on her course roster, and it meshes a lot better with her future goals than calculus will. But do be diplomatic when you break the news to the guidance counselor because, remember, this is the person who will be writing your daughter’s college recommendations!

Originally published March 1, 2015

Will Switching From IBs to APs Look Bad On My College Applications?

Question: I'm currently taking IB courses, but I'm only planning to AP classes senior year.

Will switching from IB to AP classes senior year look bad on my college applications?

If your rising-senior son is in an International Baccalaureate Diploma program and then drops out at the end of his junior year, it will raise a flag or two for admission committees but isn't a deal-breaker. He should, however, provide an explanation of this choice, using either the “Additional Information" section of his applications or a separate letter.

Obviously, there are some explanations that will play better in admissions offices than others. For instance, if your son is opting for Advanced Placement in order to avoid the most rigorous IB classes, favoring instead some of the AP alternatives that admission folks might dub the “fluffy" ones (e.g., AP Psych, AP Econ, AP Environmental Science) then this revised schedule could hurt his chances at the colleges that are the most hyper-competitive. Even if his explanatory letter points out that these are the subjects that interest him the most and that intersect with his career goals, admission officials may be apt to publicly nod in agreement while privately inching your son's application toward the Reject pile. However, at colleges where admission decisions are not so hairsplitting, a change like this one should have little or no negative impact.

But if your son's AP load will be as challenging as his IB classes would have been and includes heavy-hitters like AP Calculus, AP Physics, AP Chem, AP History, etc., the admission folks won't be so wary of the change, but they will still want to know why it happened. Perhaps there are logistical reasons (e.g., IB classes conflict with band, yearbook, or some other endeavor that your son is passionate about) or maybe the IB program at your son's high school is not well organized and/or the best teachers seem to be assigned to AP. These are all valid reasons for the new plan that should be reported to the colleges.

If your rising-senior son is in an International Baccalaureate Diploma program and then drops out at the end of his junior year, it will raise a flag or two for admission committees but isn't a deal-breaker. He should, however, provide an explanation of this choice, using either the “Additional Information" section of his applications or a separate letter.

Obviously, there are some explanations that will play better in admissions offices than others. For instance, if your son is opting for Advanced Placement in order to avoid the most rigorous IB classes, favoring instead some of the AP alternatives that admission folks might dub the “fluffy" ones (e.g., AP Psych, AP Econ, AP Environmental Science) then this revised schedule could hurt his chances at the colleges that are the most hyper-competitive. Even if his explanatory letter points out that these are the subjects that interest him the most and that intersect with his career goals, admission officials may be apt to publicly nod in agreement while privately inching your son's application toward the Reject pile. 🙁 However, at colleges where admission decisions are not so hairsplitting, a change like this one should have little or no negative impact.

But if your son's AP load will be as challenging as his IB classes would have been and includes heavy-hitters like AP Calculus, AP Physics, AP Chem, AP History, etc., the admission folks won't be so wary of the change, but they will still want to know why it happened. Perhaps there are logistical reasons (e.g., IB classes conflict with band, yearbook, or some other endeavor that your son is passionate about) or maybe the IB program at your son's high school is not well organized and/or the best teachers seem to be assigned to AP. These are all valid reasons for the new plan that should be reported to the colleges.

Do I Have To Play a Sport All Four Years of High School?

Question: I played JV soccer for three years and I'm kind of over it. I made the varsity soccer team senior year , but I'd rather spend the time on studying to raise my GPA and SAT scores.

Will not playing a sport all four years be a disadvantage when being admitted to college?

The Dean's Answer:

Quitting a sport generally only impacts college admission decisions when the student has the potential to be a recruited athlete. Presumably, anyone who is on JV as a high school junior may be a decent player but isn't strong enough to catch a coach's eye, even at the Division 3 level. Hopefully, you will have other extracurricular endeavors on your application. However, college admission folks will not care that you chose to give soccer the boot as a senior to pursue other goals.

A version of this Ask the Dean was originally posted 9/9/2011

Is This Senior Course Load Rigorous Enough for the Ivy League?


My son is hoping to apply to Stanford, Columbia, Yale and Northwestern. He has a 36 composite ACT and a 4.4 weighted GPA (on a 4.0 scale). He has completed four AP classes up to this point and earned 5's on all of the exams.

We recently received his senior year schedule. Fall includes AP Biology, AP Calculus, AP Lang, AP Government & Politics, Newspaper (he will be editor-in-chief this year), Desktop Publishing, and Cultural Foods. In the spring he will have the four AP classes listed above, Newspaper, Banned Books, and AP Macroeconomics.

We hear that maintaining rigor in the senior year is important. Does his fall schedule look too weak for Ivy League-type schools? He could replace one of his fall electives with AP Chemistry, but science really isn't his passion. At this point he's more interested in writing and humanities-oriented areas.

Do you think this senior year schedule is rigorous enough for the Ivy Leagues?

I always cringe when I get questions like yours - not because it’s a bad question (it isn’t), but because I hate that we live in an era that spawns such concerns. Your son is obviously an extremely successful student who has already signed up to take a course load that is head-spinningly rigorous (spell-check is not going to like “head-spinningly”). Yet you are wondering whether it’s tough enough for the hyper-competitive universities on his list.

No wonder our newspapers are full of stories of teenagers who are stressed and depressed! Workloads are way too heavy and class selection is too skewed toward what are perceived as admission-decision imperatives, not toward student passions. If I ruled the world, classes like “Banned Books” (love it!) would carry a lot of clout at admission-decision time. But in the real world, not all admission folks will be as wowed by it as I am.

So my opinion here is an adamant, “Don’t add the chem!” But there are a few thoughts I want to toss out nonetheless:

1) College applications ask guidance counselors to indicate whether each student’s course load is “Most Demanding,” “Very Demanding,” “Demanding,” etc. when compared to what is available. Check with your son’s counselor to make sure that his load will earn the “Most Demanding” designation, which Stanford, Yale, et al will expect. (I can’t imagine that it won’t, but I don’t know anything about your son’s school, and with today’s admissions insanity, it’s hard to predict what is “normal” anymore.)

2) You don’t mention foreign language. As you probably know, the most selective colleges favor applicants who have taken at least four years of the same foreign language. Presumably, your son has already done this (or at least he’s taken three years, which isn’t as good as four but not a deal-breaker either).

3) I’m not seeing your son’s senior schedule in the context of his entire high school program. I assume that he’s taken a science every year so far. Does his transcript include both chem and physics (or at least one of the two)? If not, the most exacting admission officers may feel that his program is a bit weak in science.

Although I do feel that your son’s schedule is plenty strong, do keep in mind that having the “right” courses, grades, and test scores only gets an candidate to outside of the Ivy gates. Then admission officials ask, “What’s special about this kid?” Even top-flight responsibilities like being editor-in-chief of the student newspaper don’t necessarily make applicants stand out at the most sought-after schools.

That’s the bad news. But the good news is that your son is sure to have many colleges that will welcome him. This crazy process does somehow usually end in a “meant to be” kind of way (whether it feels that way or not at the time).

Good luck!

originally published 7/26/2011

Which Math Class Should I Take Senior Year to Boost My Admissions Chances?


I am currently a sophomore enrolled in Precalculus.

What math coursed should I take in my senior year in order to have a great chance of earning acceptance to an Ivy League school?

The Dean's Answer:

The Ivy League colleges expect that the majority of their admitted students will have taken the “Most Demanding” course load available at their high schools. The applications will actually ask school guidance counselors to indicate whether each student's course load is "Most Demanding," "Very Demanding," "Demanding," "Average" or "Below Average" in the context of what the high school offers.

But I don’t know what options are available at your school so I can’t advise you about which specific courses to choose. Many Ivy League aspirants take Calculus AB in grade 11 and Calc BC in grade 12, but not all high schools offer a calculus sequence like this. Some students take AP Calculus as juniors and then have the option of taking college-level math as seniors.

So you should talk to your school’s college counselor to find out what path will allow him or her to designate your curriculum choices as “Most Demanding” when it comes time to apply to college.

Note, however, that course selection alone will not give anyone a “great chance” of earning a spot at the most-sought after colleges. At these places, the majority of applicants have top grades in top classes and outstanding test scores, too. Such successes will only get applicants to the outer gates. Then the admission folks ask, “What is special?”

So, certainly taking a rigorous math program will help transport you to those outer gates, but you’ll need a lot more to get you through them.

Good luck as you continue that journey.

(posted 3/2/2012)

Will Not Taking Any AP's Senior Year Affect My Admission Verdicts?


I'm a High School Senior, and throughout high school have taken advanced courses. My GPA is around a 3.5 . This year I decided to not take any AP classes. Instead, I am taking classes like Statistics (want to be a business major), my 4th year of regular English, civics and economics, physics, and an advanced photography course. I'm planning to apply to schools like the Cal States, University of San Francisco and other private schools in California.

Will the lack of AP or honors courses in my senior year affect my chances of getting into college?

Given that you have challenged yourself throughout high school, your lack of AP classes in grade 12 should not hurt you at the colleges you specifically named, especially if you continue to take a rigorous course load, even if it doesn't include AP's. However, there are two things that you ought to do:

  1. Write a brief note to your target colleges explaining why you have made the choices you've made for your senior year so that the admission folks will see that they were well-considered decisions rather than just a way for you to wheedle out of the most demanding options.
  2. Discuss these reasons with your guidance counselor and ask how he or she will evaluate your course load when applications ask for a counselor assessment of rigor (e.g., “Most Demanding," “Very Demanding," etc.). You want to make certain that your counselor bases this assessment on your entire four-year high school program and not just on grade 12. Most counselors do this, but it can't hurt to be sure. In addition, you should ask your counselor's opinion on how your current course load will affect your admission chances. You counselor will have access to data that shows how previous applicants from your high school with similar transcripts fared at decision-time at your target colleges. At some colleges that are very popular with seniors at your high school, you may find that the AP/Honors students are far more apt to get favorable verdicts than those who are in good but “regular" classes. If this is the case, you may want to bump up one of your classes to an Honors or AP level, if possible

Note also that CSU colleges and “other private schools in California" have varying admissions standards. At some, a 3.5 GPA will place you among the stronger candidates while, at others, a big chunk of applications are the 3.75+ range. So be sure that your college list includes at least one school that is a sure-thing for you.

You can use the College Confidential College Search to identify median GPA statistics and thus to help you assess whether each college will be “Reach," “Realistic" or “Safe" for you. Also use this site to identify median SAT or ACT scores at the colleges that require standardized tests. Admission officials will use these test results in conjunction with your course selection and GPA and will often put more emphasis on the test scores than they claim.

Finally, keep in mind that, at the more selective schools (UC's and many competitive private colleges) a lack of senior AP classes won't be an automatic deal-breaker but could hurt you in the admission process if you're not firing on all other cylinders. But at the colleges you named, your ought to be fine, although a short unsolicited explanation of your course choices will make you look thoughtful rather than lazy!

Originally published August 15, 2016

Should an Over-Achiever Slow Down Senior Year?

Question: Our son, a junior, is in the process of picking out his courses for senior year. Every course he has taken so far has been at the highest level offered by his school, For example, this year he is taking 3 AP courses, 3 honors courses and 1 normal level course (Religion). He has worked his tail off and has gotten excellent grades. He is number 1 in his class.

But all of this has come at a cost -- my wife and I don't feel like he is taking enough time away from his studies to enjoy the high school social experience. He wants to take a very aggressive schedule again next year (at least 3-4 more AP + 3 honors courses). My wife and I are wondering if we should encourage him to replace 1 of the AP courses with a study hall so that he will have more time to enjoy his senior year (he will still be taking 3 AP courses). Assuming that he keeps his #1 ranking...

Will a study hall on his schedule hurt his chances for an academic scholarship?

The Dean's Answer:

A study hall on a schedule will not automatically torpedo a student’s shot at scholarships or at acceptances from snazzy, sought-after colleges. However, there are some other considerations to discuss.

  1. College applications ask guidance counselors to determine if a student is pursuing the “Most Demanding” course load that is available at their school or one that is “Very Demanding,” “Demanding,” etc. Presumably, your son is on “Most Demanding” turf right now and will probably still remain there even if he lightens his load just a tad. But it’s something you need to ask, since the change in designation could affect admission and scholarship odds.
  2. All AP’s are not created equal. When admission and scholarship decisions are made, students who have taken the “heavy-hitter” courses (e.g., AP Physics, AP calculus, AP Chem) usually go to the front of the line. Those who are in AP Economics, AP Art History, AP Psychology, and even AP Statistics (a sore spot with me personally) may be behind them. So it’s not just the number of AP classes that will impact your son’s outcomes but also the perceived rigor (and not necessarily the actual rigor) of those he has elected.
  3. Standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) usually play a key role in scholarship decisions. So, regardless of how demanding your son’s course load is and how good his grades, the final verdict may rest on whether or not his test results are comparably impressive.
  4. Some scholarships are need-based. So if your family has little or no financial need, your son will be out of the running regardless of all his other accomplishments. Granted, most of biggest “merit aid” awards offered by the colleges themselves are not determined by need and go to the top applicants in the pool, regardless of household income and assets. But note also that many of the most prestigious and hyper-competitive colleges (e.g., the Ivies, MIT, Amherst) provide only need-based aid and no merit money whatsoever.

As a parent myself, I know exactly how you feel as you find your son staggering—albeit quite successfully—beneath the burden of a heavy work load. You probably reflect on your own high school days where there was more time to smell the roses … or at least the stale popcorn under the basketball bleachers. ;-) But, unfortunately, our generation has put our progeny in a very different position. Although “elite” college officials may claim that they’re looking for “normal,” healthy kids who are passionate about their undertakings and not for over-scheduled grinds who rarely make a choice without future applications in mind, the decisions the admission folks make behind closed doors often suggest otherwise.

So, before your son finalizes his senior program, you should consider the points above, but you also need to ask him what he really wants to do … and why. He may be one of those kids who, despite the time commitment and pressure, may actually prefer to test himself by taking the toughest course load offered.

(originally posted 3/30/2011)

Will Bringing Up My GPA Senior Year Boost My Admission Odds?


My grades haven't been great the first few years of high school. (I have 2.5 gpa). But if I work really hard senior year and get a 3.5 gpa, will colleges be impressed and accept him?

If you are a borderline candidate at a college but admission officials see that you're have a “rising record” (i.e., your senior year is much stronger than previous ones), you might be admitted. But with two years of a C average and then one semester with a B average, you can expect SOME change in your admission chances but not a huge change.

However, there are many colleges that welcome students with high C/low B GPA’s. For instance, check out “The Colleges that Change Lives.”

Some of these schools are fairly selective and some are far less so, but many will accept students with your GPA, and they are all places that give students a lot of individual attention and are known for caring, involved professors.

When you submit your application, you might want to use your college essay (or “the Additional Information” section of your application) to explain why your grades went up in your senior year.  Were you an unmotivated student who finally found your focus? Were there problems at home? Did you transfer to a new high school? etc.  If you discuss your upward trajectory and why it happened, you may be able to convince the admission folks that it’s going to continue.

A version of this Ask the Dean was originally published June 30th, 2015

Will It Hurt My Son to Transfer High Schools Senior Year?


My son has been attending a great private school since his freshman year. His GPA has been a steady 3.8, but he is socially miserable. My husband and I would like to give him a happy senior year. Since all of his friends attend the local private school, we would like to transfer him there.

Will transferring senior year hurt his chances of getting into a good four-year college?

The Dean's Answer:

For starters, I'm going to assume that the local private school does have room for your son at this late date. If so, then certainly the transfer will not hurt your son's chances of getting into a "good" four-year school. But if you really mean, "Will it affect his college admission odds in any way and limit his options, especially if he plans to apply to Ivies or other hyper-selective colleges?" then the answer is an unsatisfying "maybe."

Grades, course selection, and test scores are typically the most important components of a student's application. If you believe that your son's grades will be comparable (or perhaps even better) in the new environment, where he's happy, then that is a vote in favor of the new school. Presumably, he will be able to transfer into the same level of classes at the new school that in was in at his old one. For instance, if he'd been okayed for AP Calculus at the old school, can he take it at the transfer school, too? But keep in mind that there may be some differences in the curricular offerings which could affect your son's course selection. For instance, if AP American History is offered to seniors only at the new school and your son already took it as a junior at his old school, then he might not be able to fit any AP History class into his schedule. Similarly, if he was planning to take Latin 5 this year but the new school doesn't offer Latin through the fifth year, then he might have to eliminate language or make another choice. You get the picture.

Here are 3 of the reasons the transfer would be most likely to have a negative impact:

  1. If the local private school is not as renowned as the old school and if it doesn't have the same reputation for rigor that the old school enjoys, then the more selective colleges may not be as interested in its applicants as they might be in those who come from the most prestigious private schools.
  2. If your son has been elected to some leadership position at his old school for his senior year, then he will probably have to relinquish it as a newcomer, should he transfer. I imagine that many of those jobs were already finalized in the spring. Likewise, if he is an athlete, he might lose a starting role or playing time, if he transfers. If, however, the bulk of his extracurricular activities and hobbies are outside of school (e.g. community volunteering or theater, martial arts, writing poetry), then the transfer should make minimal difference.
  3. The teachers and counseling staff at the new school will not know your son well at application time, and this could impact his recommendations and perhaps the college choices that the counselor helps him to make. Ways to get around this include asking junior-year teachers for references, providing the new counselor with information about your son's achievements and strengths, and doing your own research into college options--or even hiring a private counselor.

Finally, even though your son is "socially miserable" at his current school, you don't want to be too quick to assume that he will glide seamlessly into the new school that his friends attend. While you know your son- and his friends - and can probably gauge this pretty accurately, do keep in mind that teenagers are ... well ... teenagers. The relationship that your son enjoys now as "the kid from the other school" could potentially change once he transfers. The novelty of having him around might wear off. Thus, it's conceivable that your son may not be as happy at the transfer school as you anticipate.

Is It Better To Have a Well-Rounded or Rigorous Schedule?


In registering for my senior year classes I am debating whether to take two AP history courses and dropping my science class, or whether to take Physics I and only one AP history course. I hope to go into history related studies in college. When potential schools are looking at my transcripts...

Which looks better to colleges, a well-rounded schedule or more AP classes?

The Dean's Answer:

In order to answer this truly responsibly, “The Dean” would need to see your overall transcript (all the classes you’ve taken so far and the grades you’ve earned) and also have a rough idea of the colleges you want to attend.

However, responding in a vacuum as I am, my reply (unfortunately) is that you should go with the physics + one AP history class … if you’re aiming for highly selective colleges. If, however, your top-choice schools are those that accept at least as many applicants as they reject (and if you think you’re a reasonably strong candidate for each) and if you’ve taken a lab science every year so far, then follow your heart and opt for the double history. Also, if your senior course line-up includes another heavy-hitter quantitative course (I have AP Calc in mind), then you might dump the physics (again, depending on the other sciences on your transcript). What you want to avoid is a course roster that’s entirely skewed toward humanities with no challenging math or science on it at all, even if it does include an extra AP.

It pains me to repeatedly tell students to forgo their passions in order to elect the classes that “look best” on applications. But I’m commonly asked to view a transcript through an admission-officer’s lens and not through my own. So, in this case, unless your favorite colleges are “Realistic” or “Safe,” I’d have to cast my vote for the physics, at least based on the information that I have here.

Good luck, whatever you decide.

Originally published September 19, 2019

Will Studying Abroad First-Semester Senior Year Look Bad On College Applications?


I'm considering doing a study abroad program during my first semester of senior year. I know that colleges put a lot of emphasis on first-semester senior year grades.

How do colleges view a student who chooses to spend the semester as an exchange student in another country?

The Dean's Answer:

That's a good question. In most cases, colleges will be far more intrigued by a student who has spent a semester on exchange than one who is doing the same ol' stuff at home, no matter how successfully. This is especially true if the semester is spent in a developing nation or anywhere that's off the beaten year-abroad path.

Obviously, if possible, the student should submit an essay (either supplementary or primary) about his or her exchange semester. Often, an essay that focuses on a very specific topic or on one particular unusual experience carries more clout than a generic treatise on "My Four Amazing Months in [Country]."

Students who study abroad in their senior year should encounter few barriers when it comes to college admission (other than the complications of completing applications from afar. Those without Internet access will be far more handicapped than those who can get online, even if it's not 24/7). They will generally find that admission officials--while admittedly increasingly jaded by the huge volume of today's applicants who have logged time on foreign soil--still do have extra respect for those who go on exchange for an entire semester or year, rather than merely spending a weekend in Montreal with the high school French Club.

In fact, potential problems more often crop up at the student's high school than at target colleges. Prospective exchangees, for instance, should make sure they won't be shy a mandatory English credit - or any other - that the home high school requires for graduation. They should also find out how grades earned overseas will affect class rank - if at all. Aspiring valedictorians, in particular, might want to check into how their exchange-semester transcripts will be evaluated when the final ranking is done. SAT or ACT testing may be possible while abroad, but ideally it should be completed in the spring (or possibly in January, depending on the student's return date and application deadlines). Seniors who head abroad may also have to turn down school leadership roles, if they won't be around to wield their gavels.

Overall, if you're willing to pass up the final Homecoming dance, heading the Debate Society, or other traditional senior activities, then spending the first semester away could be a valuable experience and one that might enhance admission odds and certainly not diminish them.

Originally published July 16, 2008

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Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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