Tough Choices About Coursework and Managing Your Time During Historic Moments

It’s been an incredible time to be in the Washington, D.C., area. Many of my students joined the spontaneous rallies at the White House, their pride and excitement mixing with the reality of the stress that comes with deadlines and finals at the end of a semester. I saw a number of tweets that said, in essence, “on my way to be part of this historic moment -- hope I still get a good grade on the chem exam, smh.” I had to get my students to tell me that “smh” means “smack my head” -- good to know.

I get asked about these types of time management choices all the time. My college students are usually asking if it is worth impacting a grade to spend time on a speaker, event, exhibition or one-time chance at a date with “the one.”

High school students and parents more often ask about how decisions will impact the college admissions process. Their questions may be about trading off extracurricular activities or work for more time to study, but they most often come up regarding course selection. This is nearly always posed simply as, “Is it better to get an A in a regular class, or get a lower grade in an AP/Honors/IB course?” Setting aside, for a moment, how nutty it is to make your decisions based on the admissions process, the answer is deceivingly complex.

If you’re one of those lucky people who has asked this question at a college admissions presentation or panel, you likely received the least helpful response: “What’s best is if you get the A in the AP/Honors/IB course.” This response has the merit of being true, but the unfortunate result of increasing the desire of everyone listening to choke the nearest admissions officer vigorously.

The real answer starts with something you already know: Generally, more competitive courses look better on a transcript and prepare you better for college. You are probably also aware that at the most competitive colleges, most of the applicants will have both the great grades and the hardest courses. That being said, every dean I’ve talked to agrees that there is no reason to get out of hand, and that taking a HUGE number of AP/IB/Honors/Dual Enrollment courses isn’t necessary. It is likely, however, that challenging yourself by taking SOME of these advanced classes is probably necessary to be seriously considered at the most competitive institutions.

So, you should strive to have at least SOME of these advanced courses, but you don’t have to have a HUGE number. Got that?

My advice is to pick a more competitive course at every opportunity unless: a) you think you will likely get a significantly lower grade than in the ‘regular’ course, and b) you think the workload of adding that course will be so onerous that your efforts will bring your other grades down. I encourage you to modify this principle based on your interests. If you really love a subject, then I really think it’s worth taking the most challenging course you can find. If, on the other hand, you outright loathe the subject matter, then perhaps there is little reason for you to take the course even if the risk of grade impact is small.

In other words, a grade shouldn’t keep you from exploring your interests to your fullest opportunity, but you also shouldn’t make yourself miserable based on what MIGHT happen in the college admissions process. I say “might” to remind you that the admissions process is opaque by design. You’ll never know for sure how any one college (let alone any one college admissions officer at that school) is going to evaluate or weigh these issues. Instead of this causing stress, why not let it free your mind to make the best decision for YOU, not for some college admissions dean you’ve never met? You’ll be way happier, and still get into plenty of great schools, smh.

Be seeing you.

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