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Advice for Academic Sequencing

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

Many high school students stress about how they’re performing in their classes, what their class rank is, and how their GPA stacks up to their peers. However, one thing that often goes overlooked is how to strategically decide which classes to take. It’s a rather common occurrence in the lives of a student. You pick what classes you’re going to take for next year and you submit them. Often they are chosen at the advice of “what you heard” from someone or what an older student or friend recommends. “What you heard” are rumors and the truth is that the classes you take throughout your four years of high school is one of the most important factors of where you get into college. In this article, we’ll demystify the academic sequencing process, and talk about best practices on your campaign to present your best self.

What is academic sequencing?

Academic sequencing involves the strategic organizing and planning of a student’s schedule throughout their high school career. Academic sequencing should start in freshman year by creating a four year academic plan. Starting from senior year and working back, you set a goal for what classes you want to end up in and that influences which classes you take in each consecutive year.

Your desired major will influence your academic plan

While it may be stressful to think about what you want to study in college as early as your freshman year, it’s important to at least consider. You may not know exactly what you want to study, but putting yourself in the position to take your high school’s most rigorous courses is a recipe for success. One such example is Calculus. If you’re considering anything STEM, this is a must. Additionally, all elite colleges generally expect to see Calculus on a transcript for any given major. The best way to get there is by doing some strategic academic sequencing. One strategy is to double up on math your freshman year because geometry does not have any prerequisites. Whether you are taking Algebra 1 or Algebra 2, doubling up and adding Geometry puts you on track to reach Calculus.

Take all core subjects for all four years of high school

The depth and breadth of courses offered to students these days is vast and ever changing. However, the core subjects hold steady throughout all accredited high schools. Colleges want to see a traditional curriculum in this regard. The core classes you need to have all four years are English, Math, Science, Social Science, and Foreign Language.

What happens if I don’t take all core classes for four years?

You are only held responsible for what you can control. If you run into a legitimate scheduling or course offering conflict, then it will be up to your guidance counselor to explain this when it comes time for them to write the school report for your college application. Another common complaint is when a student is no longer interested in a language or they already have enough credits for graduation by the end of sophomore or junior year. Understand that almost any college you attend will have some kind of foreign language requirement when you begin classes. They want to see that you stuck through it and demonstrate intellectual curiosity. At the end of the day, the best way to soften the impact of missing a core class is to double up on another core when you are missing one. One common example is senior year when you could take Calculus and combine it with Statistics.

Take the most rigorous courses your high school has to offer

By taking the most rigorous courses, you are demonstrating that you are someone who can handle the curriculum of a competitive university. It’s also important to take into account your own abilities as well. If you know, based on your experience in Pre-Calculus for example, that you cannot handle the course material for Calculus then don’t force it. Just understand that it could impact your ability to perform in a STEM related major, but that is ok. STEM majors are not for everyone, and your mental health as a busy high school student is important. However, on the other side of that conversation, if you are someone who is academically gifted you should be aiming high. The important thing to remember is that you cannot be penalized for attending a high school that has a limited course offering. As long as you take the most rigorous courses in your curriculum, then you’ve done what you need to do.

Should I take a class on my own time that is not offered at my school?

The answer to this question is that it depends. First and foremost, your priority is the classes that your high school does offer. Once you have reached the limit of your current course offering, then you might consider reaching outside of your curriculum to expand your intellectual curiosity. If you are trying to make up for an AP class that your school doesn’t offer, you shouldn’t stress about that because as mentioned, you won’t be penalized for something you don’t have access to. The other factor to consider is how much time you spend studying and working on an outside class. A separate class from an outside institution does not count as a listed activity. You need to weigh whether that time could be better spent exploring activities that help you demonstrate fit to major.

What about AP/IB vs. Dual Credit Courses?

AP/IB courses are built on a standard curriculum that is used nationally throughout the United States. Every college that you apply to will know the rigor behind those courses. The same cannot be said for dual credit college courses. Dual credit course curricula will vary state by state, so if you apply out of state they will have no way to know what the rigor behind that class was. Another potential issue is the course you take that is sponsored by one college might not even transfer to a different college, you’ll have to check with the institution. That is time that could have been better spent in a more rigorous AP class. One argument for the dual credit course is that it can save you money by not having to take that class in college, and that may be true. However, you have to weigh the opportunity cost of not taking the AP class (assuming you have the option) if the dual credit is being used as a replacement.

This all seems like a lot, am I allowed to ever have a free period?

Yes, yes, and a thousand times yes. If you are hitting all of the core classes and taking the appropriate amount of rigor, you may even need a free period just to keep up with everything. Building a strong and rigorous schedule is important, but if your mental health takes a hit and grades start to slip, then it was all for naught. Do not take this as an excuse to slack off, however. Some students may even take a humanities class as their free period to unwind. Whatever helps keep you performing at the top of your game, do it.

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