Ivy League Admission Tips: Choosing the Right Courses

Most high school students are aware that their academic performance will be one of the decisive factors in the college admission process. As a result, some college applicants try to achieve the highest GPA possible and pay little attention to the quality of their course load, thus ignoring this important component of their high school transcript.

Even though academic performance is certainly important, your course load is just as relevant—college admissions officers are on the lookout for applicants with a focused and challenging course load. Therefore, you should aim to take on a challenging yet doable course load instead of concentrating only on your grades; doing so will show the admissions officers that you will be a hardworking and focused asset to their schools.

How to Select Core Courses

Your high school will have specific requirements that generally include four years of English and three to four years of foreign language, math, science, and social studies.

The graduation requirements of your high school may not, however, match the expectations of selective colleges. For example, some top colleges prefer four years of English, two or more years of a single foreign language, and four years of math. The key is to take the most challenging courses available and, once you have a list of potential colleges, find out those schools’ preferences regarding core courses.

Selecting Advanced Courses

Taking advanced courses during high school will make your transcript competitive. If you succeed at advanced courses, you will show the admissions officers that you are ready for the academic rigors of college.

Following are the most common types of advanced courses.


Generally, honors courses are the lowest tier of advanced courses, but admissions officers may consider honors courses in context. For example, a high school’s honors course may be more challenging than an equivalent AP course. Or, on the other hand, honors courses may be the most rigorous academics offered at a particular high school. In either case, regional admissions officers generally understand these school-specific dynamics and consider them when reviewing an applicant’s academic record.

Advanced Placement (AP)

AP classes are some of the most demanding courses offered and are a decent gauge of college preparedness. One advantage to AP classes is that they can result in college credit depending on end-of-year exam scores. Another advantage is that AP scores provide colleges with another standardized indicator with which to evaluate and compare applicants. And while these courses are not as difficult as their equivalent classes at top colleges, they do offer challenging coursework and help develop many skills vital to college success.

Dual Enrollment

In some ways similar to the AP program, dual enrollment programs give qualified high school students the opportunity to enroll in specific classes at local community colleges, granting both high school and college credit. Dual enrollment classes are particularly useful if your high school lacks equivalent honors or AP courses, but they can also be a way for you to take classes that aren’t offered at your school.

Keep in mind that every college has its own policy regarding honors, AP, dual enrollment, and other opportunities. Some accept college credit based on AP exam scores, for example, while others base college credit on AP grades. Some colleges don’t award credit for advanced coursework in high school but do allow students to skip college prerequisite courses such as a first-semester English class.

How Many AP or Advanced Courses?

As a general rule, you should take as many AP or advanced courses as you can handle without letting your grades slip. These courses should fit in with your admissions theme and narrative.

Moreover, admissions officers will gauge the rigor of your course load against the typical course load of top students at your high school. In other words, if you take two AP and several honors courses during junior year but the typical top student at your school takes four or five AP courses, you will not seem as competitive.

Keep these Ivy League admission strategies in mind as you select your course load for each year of high school. Evidently, succeeding in the college admissions process takes more than just high grades: every aspect of your applicant profile—including your course load—must reflect your personal and academic abilities. Ivy League Prep would be delighted to help you craft a strong admissions profile. We provide our clients with personalized guidance throughout high school.