Working on a Caribbean island at a school with a great sailing program, I often talk to coaches at elite colleges about what they need to see in the academics of potential athletic recruits.
In one such conversation I asked the coach at one of America’s most selective places — one with a single-digit acceptance rate — what he would need to see to support a sailor with the admissions office: “Tough classes, more As than Bs, and an ACT in the high 20s." Note where he started: the evaluation begins with whether or not the applicant has challenged himself. It always does.
Thus, if your high school offers Advanced Placement courses, you should take some. And you need to do well. The old “Is it better to take the hard course and get a lower grade, or take the easier course and get the higher grade" does not apply on the top shelf. You have to take the tougher classes, and the best answer is to get high grades in them. If you are applying to be one of what Harvard dean Bill Fitzsimmons calls the “wicked smaht" kids, who may not have any case for special consideration, you probably need to take a lot of advanced classes and pin the needle with your results. That and prayer may get you a look at the toughest places.
Which ones should you take? The standard admissions office consideration is: has the applicant challenged him or herself in the areas that are available and appropriate to his or her abilities and interests? The challenge part is obvious. The available part starts with the curricular menu on your school’s profile. You can’t take courses that aren’t offered, so see what is. The abilities and interests mean engineers need the toughest calculus and physics courses; the humanities scholars — if there are any left — need the best in literature, history and languages. Successful applicants will build their programs around their core interests and go from there.
If you are applying as a student with a strong record and resume, you need as much challenge and success as you can demonstrate. Then again, if you have a so-called “hook" with admissions — read as an athletic recruit, under-represented minority, first-generation applicant, legacy, development, or other special case — more As than Bs may get the job done, because the strength of your course load will show that you can handle the workload and go on to graduate.
Indeed, the sometimes complicated admissions process can come down to admissions officers answering two questions. Question one: can the applicant be successful in our program? Can he or she go on to graduate? The question is not Will the applicant be Phi Beta Kappa or Summa Cum Laude? The issue is graduating. Somebody must graduate dead last from each elite school each year. Thirty years ago, I sent an eventual “anchorman" to the Naval Academy. He graduated. Last. Senator John McCain graduated fifth from last. Does anyone care? He graduated.
Question two: what do we get that we truly value if we accept this student who can do the work, that we can’t get from those other 20 students who can also do the work? That’s where the special categories come into play, but more on that at another occasion. The first question is always about strength and challenge of courses. You must have it to be taken seriously by admissions officers at selective places.
What’s in it for you? Usually the best teachers in your school. Whether your school offers APs or the International Baccalaureate or another curriculum, the most rigorous courses are generally where you will find the best faculty. They will challenge you. You won’t always like it, but you will learn more. There are writers who say, “I hate having to write, but I love having written." If you can discipline yourself to delay gratification until you earn it, you will go far.