How to Choose the Best High School Courses for Competitive College Admissions

Learn what weighted GPA means to college admissions—it’s different than you think.

If you’re an ambitious high school student, you probably already have your high school transcript stacked with AP, Honors, and advanced level coursework. After all, most colleges consider the rigor of your high school course load a top criterion in the selection process of college admissions.

That’s why it’s important to reflect on your goals—what schools you want to apply to and what areas of study you’re interested in exploring. Knowing this, will help guide your choices in course selection.

How to choose the best high school courses for competitive college admissions

Before you start creating your next year’s schedule, be sure to revisit your four-year academic plan. Consider not only the HS requirements, but reflect upon your goals. If you plan to compete for admissions to highly selective colleges (less than 25% acceptance rate), be sure to research not only the minimum requirements, but the average academic profile of the previous year’s incoming freshman class.

The ideal course load should not only fulfill graduation requirements but suggest the intersection between academic abilities, depth in interests, and your college choices. I will tell you how.

1. Determine your transcript’s academic rigor—

College admissions officers not only focus on grades, but what courses you’ve taken. The interest here it two-fold. Confirmation that you have taken the pre-requisite coursework for your chosen major. For example, a STEM major should have calculus on their schedule as a junior. Affirmation that you have taken rigorous coursework from the standpoint of challenging yourself, without other grades suffering. For example, if you got an ‘A’ in your sophomore year Honors English, it would be advantageous to have AP English on your schedule in your junior year.

2. Explore electives—

Advanced classes aren’t the only way to demonstrate intellectual ability and curiosity. Electives courses are a great way to explore interests and add depth to your transcript. For example, if you are interested in psychology—take not just psychology but developmental psychology, biopsychology, and any other psychology classes offered. Likewise, If you plan to pursue an engineering degree, your electives should reflect this—meaning a few years of physics, a strong math track, and plenty of science labs.

3. Consider your focus on an upward trend—

Let’s say you got lots of B’s in ninth grade, but your grades at the beginning of junior year were all A’s. Admissions officers will take note of the upward grade trend, and in some cases, may be a bit more lenient on not-so-strong grades early on.  I advise to not get discouraged by lower grades in ninth and tenth grade, but be extra mindful that your grades have an upward trend in your junior and senior year. Yes, I said it—senior year too! I get it, you are wrapped up ready to be done with high school. Keep in mind, many universities will ask for your 1st semester senior year grades as a variable in admissions decisions.

How admissions officers calculate high school GPAs

You may be wondering, how will taking rigorous coursework in high school support your changes in competitive college admissions. Here’s how. Although there are varying ways colleges recalculate your GPA, the more competitive schools (and those not so competitive), will focus their calculation only on core coursework.

GPA recalculation in a 4-step process.

1. Step #1: Pull CORE courses from your transcript.

Core Courses:

1. English

2. Math

3. Science

4. Social Science

5. Foreign Language

5. Computer Programming

6. AP, IB, AICE, & approved Dual Enrollment

2. Step #2: Convert A-F grades to points.

A = 4 points

B = 3 points

C = 2 points

D = 1 point

F = 0 points

3. Step #3: Add up all your points for your CORE courses only.

4. Step #4: Divide total points by number of CORE courses.

Most colleges use this method or one close to it. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to call the admissions office and ask.

You are probably wondering— “what about my advanced coursework?” Hold on, we are getting to that piece. Once you go through the first process—then, you will go through the process of calculating your CORE weighted GPA.

1. Step #1: Add up all CORE unweighted total.

This GPA calculation is like the calculation above, except that for each AP, IB, AICE, approved Dual Enrollment, and sometimes honors will be given extra weight.

You will see some variation of this:

Honors, Pre-AP, Pre-IB = ½ point

AP, IB, AICE = 1 point

Approved Dual Enrollment = 1 point

NOTE: You must receive a C- or better to qualify for weighted points

2. Step #2: Divide by the number of CORE courses.

Wala. You have the calculation for your weighted GPA. Many colleges will use this calculation or one that’s close. With that, some colleges will simply do a quick glance of your overall transcript and make their decision. Nevertheless, their criteria will be the same—academic rigor, electives that reflect a demonstrated intellectual curiosity, and upward grade trend.

Final thoughts about how to choose the best high school courses for competitive college admissions

I hope you enjoy exploring how to choose the best high school courses for competitive college admission. Remember, the 1st step is to reflect on your goals—what schools you want to apply to and what areas of study you’re interested in exploring. Knowing this, will help guide your choices in course selection. Contact me if you have questions.

Dr. Tucker established her own consulting business after a long, successful career working in higher education. Besides being an associate member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), she is also trained as a Life and Career Coach through the Institute for Life Coach Training.  She toured hundreds of colleges, networked with admissions reps from across the country, and spoken at national conferences about student success and college retention. Read more about her here.

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