MIND THE GAP, part one: How the Gap between High School Graduation and College Admissions Curriculum Requirements Can Affect your Child’s Chances of Acceptance

Recently, I received a frantic phone call from a client’s mother. She was trying to make sense out of two completely conflicting pieces of information- one from her son’s high school, the other from me. Her son, Sergio is a bright and witty soon to be 11th grader at a well -respected Midwestern public high school. Sergio had come home from his back-to-school night insisting that he drop Spanish 4. His reasoning was that:

  1. With the completion of Spanish 3 as a Sophomore, he had fulfilled the state’s graduation requirements for foreign language, and
  2. His High School Counselor told him that it would be fine, he didn’t “need” it.

When You Are on the Cliff

After talking Sergio’s mom off the “cliff”(upon which all college bound mothers sit precariously during registration and application times) we discussed the reasons why he would not be dropping Spanish 4. According to the academic and admission plan that we had laid out for Sergio – which would lead him to the verdant , grassy, quadrangle at an esteemed southern university- he had agreed to take Spanish 4, and AP Spanish the following year. When we revisited his goal of admission at this august institution, I gently reminded Sergio that this particular, highly selective college frowned upon less than 4 full years of high school foreign language, and used academic rigor as a method of selecting applicants. Luckily, Sergio is a smart kid; he refocused on his goal and stayed in Spanish 4.

Last year, in October, I gained a last minute client: a senior who was looking to attend a small liberal arts college in the Northeast (which routinely ranked in the top 5 of all schools in the nation.) Amelia’s plan to study languages and cultural anthropology came from her years as a military child, traveling and living all over the world. She was an ideal candidate for this school: language oriented, bright, studious, concerned, well -read. She had everything this school routinely looks for- except a course in mathematics her senior year. As she had moved from a very competitive northern Virginia school system to a DODEA school the month before her senior year began, Amelia registered for some of the same classes she would have taken had she stayed in Virginia. Math was, by far, her weakest subject, and it came as a pleasant surprise to her when her new High School counselor told her that taking another math was “unnecessary” as the requirements for graduation had been met with the completion of Pre-calculus in her junior year. Although her grades were good in math, she felt that she could spend the time pursuing coursework which held more interest for her. By the time I began working with Amelia, it was too late to change courses and reenroll in AP Stats or Calculus. Without knowing, Amelia made a common mistake which ultimately led to the unfortunate denial of her application to the school she had placed number one on her list.

Think that I am over-exaggerating this?

Think I am using hyperbole to get my point across? I am not. A quick call to the admission office gave me the information I needed in both cases. Sergio’s dream college would look unfavorably on a student with less than 4 years of a foreign language AND had historically not admitted students who did not meet the same course rigor as other applicants who did take 4 years.

For Amelia, the admissions office was blunt. Her lack of 4 years of math made her non-competitive compared to other applicants who, although wanted to choose the same major as Amelia, had buckled down and sucked up the last year of a rigorous math course progression.

I give you these examples, not to cause more sleepless nights as parents or college bound students. But rather, to remind and inform that there is in this country a gap between the coursework used to complete a high school diploma and that which is expected of students looking to gain admission at selective, highly selective and most selective colleges and universities in the US and abroad. Here is the bottom line:

The requirements for this are not necessarily the same as those for college admission.

Most High School diplomas don’t require the rigorous course of study which college admission offices demand.

So what does this mean for us as families?
It means that, like in all things, prior planning is key. Think of a rigorous course of study as a way of widening the chance of admittances and scholarships. Think of it as a way of keeping our children on the most direct path to graduation, regardless of a civilian job transfer, military move, school choice, or redistricting.

For all parents and students, I would suggest taking a quick look at any college guidebook or college website, or googling suggested high school curriculum and the name of your alma mater or college in your state. Most colleges will not just list academic rigor as an admissions variable, but will also clearly define the coursework they would like to see on any given application. The College Board also lists this in their school profiles, as does US News andWorld Report and the Princeton Review. The more selective the college, the higher degree of rigor in High School curriculum expected. I would also suggest attending an admissions information session with your student and asking about class rigor and requirement. Most colleges will happily address these topics to perspective students- they want you prepared!

It Is Never to Soon to Start

For middle school parents, it means accelerated math in 7 and 8 grade. Finishing Algebra 1 in 8th grade can mean taking AP stats or AP calc or even an introductory accounting class in community college as a senior in high school. Making your transcript shine. Take a foreign language if offered. Ask about accelerated English courses which focus on thematic writing.

For freshman and sophomore families, it means staying on track with honors and accelerated classes, delving into AP as soon as your school system allows in your child’s strongest subjects. And even enrolling in the Pre IB* course if available in your district. Continue to take a foreign language, writing and critical thinking based English classes, and laboratory sciences.

For juniors and seniors: don’t just stop taking a subject because you fulfilled the graduation requirements for your school’s diploma. Consider AP and IB classes. Take 4 years of math, English, languages, social studies/humanities, and lab sciences (and this does not count the year of foreign language or math you took in 8th grade.) Don’t rest on your laurels- achieve and push yourself academically.

Work with your High School counselor to make sure that he or she knows of your admissions goals and plans. Spell out your academic course to her so that she knows exactly which classes you are considering. Gently remind them that your goals far surpass High School graduation and that to make you competitive, you must surpass the minimum requirements of your district and your state. Few HS counselors have the resources to follow college admissions standards and fewer still are trained college admissions counselors. Don’t be afraid to educate them on your dreams. Chances are, your high school counselor wants to know and help you achieve them. Lastly, consider mapping out your high school academic plan. Many organizations have resources which can help you do this. One favorite of mine is The Military Child Education Coalition’s Chart your Course resource. Not just for military-connected children, but for any student or family whose school years could be effected by transfer. It clearly lays out how to avoid the pitfalls of minimum graduation standards.

Lastly, I would be vigilant in your course selection throughout high school. Keep track of testings, AP exams, curriculum standards and thoughtfully reviewing class choices with a trusted advisor, parent, or college counselor. Learn a lesson from Sergio and Amelia, and MIND THE GAP.

next week… MIND THE GAP part two: How a Rigorous Course of Study can Save You Money in University


* Names of students have been changed to protect their anonymity.

* IB is the International Baccalaureate Diploma program, which many colleges feel is the most rigorous course of study out of all high school curriculum. Find out more.


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