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The Four-Year High School Curriculum: Focus on What Matters

“Always plan at least two steps ahead.” – A.J. Darkholme.

congratulationsAs middle school is ending and guidance counselors help students plan 9th Grade courses, it will be valuable to take the long view, considering the entire high school curriculum. At first this seems like a nerve-wracking prospect: how can parents have any idea what a fifteen-year-old will be capable of or interested in by 12th Grade? How will the adolescent evolve intellectually over the next four years? What subjects will he or she find appealing? This post identifies three considerations to inform four-year high school planning, as well as a discussion of how to approach specific subject areas.

Three Considerations to Guide Planning

LEGOS1. Earliest Inclinations. Hopefully, you know your child well enough to surmise what pursuits he or she has always loved and has consistently demonstrated strong potential. The great depth psychologist Carl Jung famously observed, What did you do as a child that made the hours pass like minutes? Herein lies the key to your earthly pursuits.” Was your child fascinated by and naturally proficient at advanced puzzles and complicated building sets? Was he or she an early reader, progressing to advanced levels quickly, with a sophisticated vocabulary and an artful turn of the phrase? Was your son or daughter a young philosopher with an abstract mind, asking questions and finding exceptions to the rule? Despite being generally intelligent, did your child have trouble with classroom performance (e.g., attention span, impulse control, or reading comprehension)?

I am not advising that you prematurely pigeonhole your child. However, as an observant parent, you probably already possess keen insight into your child’s natural inclinations, more than you know. You can use these insights to help your student choose a satisfying and successful high school curriculum.

boyalivebrainbook2. Present-Day Skill Set and Interests. In middle school, your child excelled in some subjects and struggled with (or disliked) others. Perhaps… your preteen did fine in arithmetic, but as math became more abstract (e.g., algebra), he or she became less comfortable. Or, perhaps… your preteen is a strong reader and writer in English, but does not enjoy or perform well in rudimentary Spanish. Or, perhaps… your student is skewed toward quantitative or verbal subjects; then one should prepare for an advanced curriculum in areas of strength out of the gate, while adopting a “wait-and-see” attitude in other subjects. Or, perhaps… learning issues have not improved, and you are concerned enough to hire a learning consultant to diagnose a learning disability (LD) or attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD). Keep updating your view of your student’s capabilities and preferences, which paradoxically have both stability over time and an evolutionary quality. Incorporate your student’s unique, individual up-to-the-minute academic situation into upcoming high school plans.

playdoctor3. Future Aspirations. Middle school students generally lack the knowledge of career options to form a realistic notion of what they want to do when they grow up. But if your student does express interests that accurately line up with skill set, the planned high school curriculum should focus on what will probably matter most to that student. Say that your student has long been interested in becoming a doctor and is also proficient in math and science. In such a case, it is worthwhile to plan a four-year curriculum that facilitates advanced math (through AB Calculus) and science (through AP Biology or AP Chemistry), with electives such as Anatomy & Physiology. In many rigorous high schools, it is critical to get into the advanced program from the outset, or else it is hard to catch up later.

Specific Subject Areas: There is no “one size fits all.” Every high school has its own tracks and requirements; however, the discussion below will help you plan for specific subjects.

Young Cheerful Indian Mathematics Teacher in a Classroom interacting with the class

1. STEM Subjects: Most colleges require three years of mathematics, with technically-oriented programs requiring four years through calculus. A student with developed STEM capabilities and interests should, from 9th Grade, be enrolled in an advanced math track to facilitate AB or BC Calculus. Highly talented math students should take Honors Geometry in 9th Grade, perhaps doubling up on Honors Geometry and Honors Algebra II/Trig to be able to take Honors Pre-Calculus in 10th, AB Calculus in 11th, and BC Calculus in 12th. While not necessary for most college majors, BC can distinguish students applying to top engineering, science, or economics programs. Rigor can be adjusted as the student’s math abilities manifest over time. If the student struggles in Honors Pre-Calc, it is advisable to drop back to “regular” Pre-Calc to protect GPA. This student remains in position to take Introductory Calculus, which will not facilitate placing out of the college calculus requirement but will lead to acing calculus as a college freshman, since it will be a review.

laptopguywithdogI recommend AP Statistics if the teacher is exceptional at introducing this complex subject. AP Stats facilitates placing out of the college stat requirement. Students can also distinguish their academic record for top engineering, science, business, or economics programs. If your student has an interest in computers, I recommend coding or computer language courses either as electives or summer programs (yes, it is okay to explore video game, robotics, animation, or app design programs). If the enthusiasm continues, one can take AP Computer Science Principles or AP Computer Science A as an upperclassman.

chemlabwithteacherLab science requirements vary from two to four courses, depending on whether one is applying to a liberal arts college or a technically-oriented program. I suggest a College Prep or Honors version of Biology, Chemistry or Physics before trying an AP, to help clarify interest and ability. If life sciences becomes the student’s focus, AP courses should include AP Biology, Honors in Chemistry and Physics, and AP Chemistry. If the student’s interests evolve toward engineering, focus on AP Physics (four levels/topics), Honors in Biology and Chemistry, and electives in engineering or robotics. AP Environmental Science is popular option for students who are not necessarily focused on science careers, but concerned with preserving our planet and its resources.

2. English: Colleges universally require four years of English, since “reading and writing” is critical for educated individuals. I suggest challenging oneself by enrolling in Honors English courses from 9th Grade on, unless one is an extremely skewed quantitative student. If possible, the student should plan on AP English Language & Composition and AP Literature & Composition as an upperclassman.


3. History and Social Science (i.e., Social Studies). Requirements vary from two to four courses, depending on the rigor of the prospective college. Most high schools ensure an exposure to U.S., European and World History. Level of rigor should be determined by capability, interest, and available time versus other demanding subjects, since Honors/AP versions of these courses are content-heavy and time-consuming (especially AP U.S. History). Many high schools offer fascinating courses that, until recently, were not available before college. Some are highly demanding and should be taken only with teachers known for explaining the subject well (e.g., AP Macro or AP Microeconomics). Other courses offer valuable exposure and allow demonstration of ability to do college work but are not content-heavy (e.g., AP U.S. Government & Politics, AP Psychology, or AP Human Geography).

languagelearning4. World Languages and Cultures: Learning a language at fifteen is not ideal, but until our education system lines up with the last fifty years of language acquisition research, teens will be studying world languages. Ivies and elite liberal arts colleges will expect three to four years of a language, while most state universities or technically-oriented schools will require two. If your student is especially gifted in language, encourage four years through AP level, to place out of most colleges’ requirement. If your otherwise brilliant student struggles with language and it becomes a GPA buster, I suggest the minimum for the type of college your student is targeting, replacing that painful French course with an Honors or AP course your student will ace and actually enjoy. He or she will then need to take a year of a language in college (alas!), which can be the high school language (a review that will boost one’s college GPA) or a different one that can broaden your student’s exposure to world languages.

violinteacher5. Visual and Performing Arts:  If the arts are important to your adolescent, they should be built into the high school curriculum, because every activity from studio art to orchestra is an elective. The role of the arts in your teen’s life will evolve throughout high school; it will either become a hobby or a career pursuit. If your student continues to focus on the arts seriously, he or she should take AP arts courses as an upperclassman, while developing a portfolio or preparing for auditions for an arts institute or conservatory. Related posts: Preparing to Major in the Performing Arts,  Colleges with Arts Merit Scholarships.