Once you get to high school, the decisions you make about courses, extracurricular activities, and college plans all begin to have a more direct impact on your goals and college applications.
High school is the time when you’ll be meeting with admissions counselors, visiting schools, and, eventually, putting together your actual application. Here are the things you should be thinking about doing during high school to decide what you want your college experience to be. Review our Academics and IB vs. AP sections to learn more.
Make Deliberate Choices About Your Academic Schedule
You need certain classes to graduate high school, as well as certain classes to be eligible for admission to college. Here is some advice on how to satisfy both sets of requirements without overburdening your course schedule.
Have a stress reliever class. I know a lot of highly motivated students that fill their schedules completely with APs and college classes, then burn out and dread them. You should challenge yourself, but treat yourself also. I do this through art classes. Maybe yours is music or PE, but, regardless, give yourself a class you know you’ll look forward to. -Sarah, Duke TIP alum
The requirements for selective colleges typically include everything you need to graduate from high school plus extra classes that depend on the college and program you want to attend. Here’s what you can do to make sure you have what you need by your senior year:
- Understand graduation and college requirements. Know what you’ll need to take by the time you graduate high school. For colleges, requirements often include four years of English plus at least three years of math, science, social studies, and a foreign language. But these requirements can vary by colleges and major. If you know what school you want to go to, check out their requirements early so you can make sure you meet them by the time you finish high school. If you don’t know yet, that’s okay, too—just make sure you’re on pace to take the core classes that most colleges require.
- Schedule an appointment with your counselor during the first semester of your ninth grade year and stay connected with them all four years. Your counselor will help you navigate all of your requirements and is likely required to write a recommendation for you. Attend all school orientation sessions, read the school handbook and website, and have a clear-cut set of goals in mind before you meet with your counselor. Follow up by email if needed.
- Ask your counselor about more than academics. Ask about summer internships and community service opportunities. Find out which graduates from your high school attend the competitive colleges that interest you and what made them successful.
- Your freshman grades will form the baseline grade point average (GPA) that determines your class rank, if your high school has class ranks, and creates the basis for your college admissions portfolio. Colleges want to see that you’ve taken challenging courses, so you can get off to a strong start by taking more rigorous courses during your freshman year. But don’t overburden yourself. Otherwise, you risk burning out before you get to college.
- Taking the most challenging classes your school offers that you can excel in is important, so you should meet with your counselor to figure out what that course of study is—it could include Advanced Placement (AP) classes, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, or dual-enrollment college courses.
- Take at least five solid academic classes each semester. Once you’ve chosen your schedule, double check to make sure you’ve built in enough time to get from class to class.
- Become involved deeply in a few high school activities. Find what you enjoy doing and stick with it. This improves your skills in those areas, and shows you can make and keep commitments. Besides, signing up for too many clubs may make it look as though you’re padding your college résumé. Colleges are looking for passionate, interesting students who can stick to an effort.
- Assume a leadership role in a few of your activities. College admissions officers like students who are unafraid to lead and have a big impact on something they care about.
- If you are considering playing college sports, know the NCAA requirements for college admission in those sports. Even the very best quarterback may not make it onto the college field without a high school foreign language background.
- Distinguish yourself with your teachers and counselors. You’ll be asking these individuals for recommendations to colleges and scholarships one day. They work with many students, so it is critical that they know you (just be sure they know who you are for the right reasons!).
- Become a regular in the guidance office. Volunteer to help transfer students become familiar with class procedures, assist with mailings, and help out at the school’s college fair.
- Become an active participant in class discussions. You don’t always have to speak in class, but you should make thoughtful contributions that enrich everyone. That way, your teachers will know who you are and what you are capable of.
- Friendships fluctuate and change in high school for most people. Knowing this can make it easier to cope with school when you see middle school friends gravitating to new groups that may not include you. But now is a great time for you to form new friendships as well. One good way to do this is to participate in different activities. You’ll soon build different circles of friends centered around these activities—giving you more social options.
IB Courses vs. AP Courses
One of the most important facets on a college application, especially at selective schools, is whether a student has taken the most challenging classes their high school offers. Many schools offer both an IB or an AP path to advanced courses. Which option is best for you?
For many students, it’s clear what the most challenging academic path at their school is. But some schools offer both Advanced Placement (AP) courses and an International Baccalaureate (IB) program; students are able to choose between them. So which is better?
There’s not a simple answer. The good news is that both programs are well-regarded by colleges, so either one will demonstrate your academic ability, so long as you take a sufficient number of the courses and do well in them. To decide between them, you should figure out which is best for your interests and style of learning.
Taking AP courses, which are designed to mirror introductory college courses, allows you to enroll in just those classes you are especially interested in, while the IB program offers the opportunity to gain an in-depth understanding about a broader array of topics through an interdisciplinary approach. The IB program also includes a 4,000-word research paper and 150 hours of community service.
The next time you’re stressing out over whether or not to squeeze in that extra AP class, remember that the point of education isn’t to get good grades to get into a good college to get into a good job; it’s to help you become a better, happier person. -Sam S., Duke TIP alum
What to Ask Before You Decide
Discuss these questions about the AP and IB programs at your school with your family before you decide:
- Are the program’s teachers well prepared in the disciplines they are teaching?
- Are they willing to accommodate your learning needs and styles and to respond to your interests and passions?
- Do they understand the needs of gifted students?
- Do they emphasize the joy of learning in addition to the test scores to be earned at the end of the course of study?
- Does the school offer internships and mentorships that might enable you to explore a profession or investigate questions of interest and importance?
- Does the AP program or the IB program offer a closer match between your talents and interests and the school’s curricular options?
- Is the content or instruction in one program or the other better suited to your learning styles?
In short, research the specific programs at your school, ask the opinion of students that have gone before you, and choose the program that best suits your particular needs and interests. Doing so will be best for you and for your college application.
Don’t do it for the grades; do it because you want to learn and gather as much knowledge as possible. Your experience, passion, efforts, and determination are what matters in life. -Hebing W., Duke TIP alum