I Wish I Knew: How to Build a Salad

“I wish I knew” is a blog series from Cram Crew about the benefits of our College Readiness program for high school students (and how those services would have benefited us had it been available for our use)

By Madeline Sneed

When I was in high school, the time to select courses was always quite standard. I took the regular level math class (I was terrified of any advanced placement with numbers), and I always took AP English and history. I was never strategic about picking my courses—I knew what I enjoyed studying, and I knew what I despised (hint: math). I was interested in the sciences, but, again, my fear of numbers kept me from challenging myself with advanced placement courses. I never thought: why should I take these? Will this look good on my transcript? I just thought: I love this, I hate this, or I’m not sure about this, but I like the teacher enough to give it a chance.

In hindsight, I wish I had been more strategic about the courses I took. In order to keep you from the same sad regret, I’ve asked our president, Deepak Thadhani, for his expert opinion on course selection for high school students. One of the best ways to get guided help from Cram Crew is through our College Readiness program, where students can meet with Deepak on a semester basis to help with their course selection (and college applications!) so that they can put their best foot forward as they apply to colleges.

Here’s our Q&A.

What is the benefit of taking an AP/dual credit course?

AP courses provide students with a challenge and add rigor to their schedule.  I do not suggest taking AP exams so much for the college credit opportunity, but more for the challenge.  Dual Credit courses are a great option for students to take if they are considering state schools.  Typically, dual credit courses are not as rigorous as AP courses, but are a step above grade level courses.  Ultimately, having a good balance of courses that fits the student’s abilities is best.  The courses should align properly with the student’s ultimate college goals.

Do you think there is a maximum number of advanced/honors courses that a student should take?

It really depends on the student.  At Cram Crew, we believe every student is unique and there is no “cookie cutter” approach.  Each student has their own unique strengths; as such, we assist in choosing courses the best align with the student.

Is there more value in certain AP courses than others? Are advanced hard sciences (Bio, Chemistry, Physics) looked upon more favorably than soft sciences/liberal arts advanced courses (Psychology, History, English)?

I believe the “value” is really dependent on a student’s comfort and goal.  For example, a student interested in engineering should have more emphasis on AP math and science courses, where as a student pursuing a career in history should have more emphasis on AP social sciences.

If, for example, you are weaker in a subject (math, for example), should you attempt a more advanced course instead of the standard level with the hope of impressing colleges?

At Cram Crew, we encourage students to challenge themselves with courses that impress colleges.  However, we emphasize: focus on the student, not on the college.  We put a lot of energy into the student and helping her achieve her goals. In some cases, we focus on the more unique, creative elective courses such as photojournalism, creative writing, Art History, etc. This said, we do encourage students to take a challenging, robust schedule.

At what point should a student value the GPA over the prestige of an AP course?

We encourage all students to begin with the most rigorous and most robust schedule starting freshman year. From there, we can scale down. Ultimately, we allow the students to dictate the schedule based on their confidence and comfort level.

Should you only take AP courses if you think you will pass (3 or higher) the AP exam for that course?

No. We do not put emphasis on the AP exam during course selection. The result on the AP exam is an “added value” and not a determining factor.

Is there value to taking AP courses senior year even though colleges will only see one semester’s grades for the course?

Taking a rigorous and robust schedule senior year keeps the momentum going. It also allows the student to be challenged and develop skills for college. Most universities ask for the senior schedule on the application, so staying focused and maintaining a robust schedule is considered positive by universities.

Are fine arts electives looked down upon? Should these courses be taken, or should students focus on more rigorous electives (taking a second history, science, or math class, for example)?

The courses are never looked down upon; they are actually encouraged to consider taking courses that fall within their level of educational interest. The courses a student takes should align well with the student’s goals.  Students are always encouraged to look at the other core elective such Art History, Music Theory, Psychology, European History, etc.

Do AP courses prepare students for college level courses?

The courses are good as it relates to mental preparation, organization, and study skills. However, these all can be developed in non-AP courses. AP courses are a great preview of college level courses, but they are not the only means to prepare for college.

What is the best balance of an impressive course load and a manageable course load? Does it depend on the student?

It does depend on the student, their activities, and their goals. Hence, it is great to start the conversation early as it relates to colleges.  The earlier the discussion begins, the more prepared and planned we can be.

What other advice would you give to high school students as they choose their classes?

Many times you hear students taking courses because their friends did or their friends are. Students should focus on themselves and on their goals. Every student is unique and different. I think this gets lost. Students need to build an identity with their courses. Course selection is like building a salad. Build it based on what you like, not what others like or based on what looks good.  If your resume and essays mirror your schedule and your goals, then the student will “look” good.

Preparing for college is daunting, but the best way to do so is by starting early. Cram Crew’s College Readiness program allows students to craft a personalized college plan with Deepak, an expert in this field. There’s no need to go through the course selection process blindly (as I did in high school); Cram Crew is here to help guide you through your high school academics to better prepare you for college. Skeptical? Take a look at all the schools our students have been accepted to here! With our help, you can join their ranks. Sign up with us to start building your salad!

  • Ty Segura

    I took some interesting electives along the way, such as Psychology and Sociology. I enjoyed both classes, and when I entered college, I had done so as a psychology major. My interest in English grew greater so I actually ended up switching Psychology to my minor. However, I probably would have never followed that path had it not been for my elective in high school.