Oberlin Blogs

What should I be taking?

February 5, 2010

Jesse Hernandez

I've been getting a few calls lately from parents or current students asking my advice on what classes someone should take to bolster their transcript. It can sometimes be a tricky question to answer as often these questions are accompanied by situational elements that vary by student. However, responding to all these inquiries has allowed to me pick out a few universal tips that I think could be helpful for all those future college applicants.

First, let me start by outlining what we prefer to see from a student's transcript. Oberlin looks for students to have taken at least four years of English and math (through precalculus), and three years of science (preferably with physics), social science, and foreign language (the same foreign language through the third level). What happens if we come across an applicant who does not meet these levels? We generally see that student as being deficient in that respective area and make note of it while reviewing their application. This does not mean that they are automatically thrown out of consideration or anything along those lines; in fact we admit students every year who are deficient in areas. However, it may mean that we ask students to make up their deficiency once here, but it's all on a situational basis. It also may mean that compared to a student who has met these guidelines, the deficient student's course load will look weaker. So, tip #1: Try to meet our guidelines, or as we say, "Cover your bases."

With this in mind, let me dive a little deeper into what we are looking for. We want to see that students are pushing themselves given the curriculum available to them, and pushing themselves in all areas. One of the biggest pitfalls I come across with applicants is that they focus only on their area of interest/expertise to the detriment of the other subjects. For example, it's great if a student loves art, but it will hurt their chances of admission if they take a vast number of art classes but only take minimum levels of math and science. The thing to keep in mind is that when you apply to Oberlin's College of Arts and Sciences, you are not applying to any specific program. Nor are we looking to meet quotas for particular programs. Therefore, a person interested in science is reviewed in the same light as a person interested in theater, and so both applicants need to be well rounded on their transcript. Tip #2: Push yourself in all academic areas, not just those you are most interested in.

The next line of questions I receive usually center around choosing one class over another. When answering these I always sum up tips 1 and 2, and assuming those guidelines are met, I give my take on AP or IB classes. If your school offers them, I recommend taking them. Why? Because they are not only recognized as being the highest level of a subject that you can take, but also as being quite rigorous. If your school does not offer APs or IBs, you are not set back! The reason we have counselors assigned to regions of the country is partly so we can know the curriculum of particular schools. It's not that we are necessarily looking for APs or IBs, but more importantly we are looking to see if a student is "maxing the curriculum" offered to them. So if advanced Calculus is the highest level math offered, we see that as the equivalent of someone taking AP Calc at a school with APs. Ultimately, the person reviewing your application wants to know that you can succeed here, and succeeding in the hardest courses your school offers is a great way to show that you can.Tip #3: Max your curriculum.

That being said, it's not all about loading your transcript with APs or IBs. You can still take orchestra, or art class, or filmmaking. It all just depends on if you are still managing to "cover your bases," not completely skip out on taking the highest level classes, and are doing so in a well-rounded curriculum. It's all about balance and managing your time (time management, incidentally, is another thing we like to see from an applicant). If you are taking the highest levels in three of the five areas, and are covering your bases in a well rounded curriculum, we aren't going to stare at that choir class you chose to take in 12th grade and wonder why AP Chem is not on the transcript. It's a holistic review, and so one thing (or class selection) is not going to make or break you. Tip #4: When you've covered your bases and stayed well rounded, your non-academic classes become trivial.

So, if a student keeps all of these tips in mind and tries to follow them, I can tell them that when it comes to choosing between class A or class B, the choice is theirs. It's a big topic and of course there is room for discussion, so let me know if you have particular questions.

Responses to this Entry

To add a note on AP courses, when I was taking them I sort of "forgot" that the credits from the tests actually went towards college. I'm able to graduate a semester early from Oberlin largely because of AP credits, which is some serious scratch saved. Just another thing to think about when you're slogging through AP Chemistry.

Posted by: Will on February 6, 2010 11:06 AM

Yep, a good point, Will. We also take IB credit based on tests, so study hard and good luck! Although, due to this policy we now are not going to be able to have Will around for quite as long, a loss for us :)

Posted by: Jesse Hernandez on February 6, 2010 3:13 PM

This is excellent info! I email Debra C. in Admissions just yesterday regarding similar issues. I am an Oberlin grad (1984) with an 8th grade daughter applying to private Catholic High Schools mostly because our local public high school is awful. However we are considering moving to another district which has a much better public high school. So my question to Debra was how do admissions staff view public vs. private?

All the high schools in CA emphasize requirements for the UC system. We do have an excellent UC system here however my daughter would be more inclined to leave the state. (An independent type just like her mom.) Do small colleges weigh private vs. public high schools differently? Does an A in English class have the same weight as an B in English Honors class? Does the freshman year get considered much at all? How are SAT scores considered? From your blog I now have a clear picture of the importance of a well-rounded high school experience. Times certainly have changed. I never made it to Pre-Calc myself! Any more thoughts you can share would be greatly appreciate.

Posted by: Ann on February 10, 2010 10:56 PM

Hi Ann,

Oberlin views each school individually. We have counselors assigned to specific regions in part so that we know the strengths, weaknesses, curriculums, etc., of the various schools in our area. For example, I am the counselor for Texas. I travel there often and know many of the schools well enough to have an idea of the rigors of their curriculum. Some public schools are great, better than some private schools, and vice versa. The bottom line is that we are wary of individual school's strengths and how an A at one school may look compared to an A at another.

I've heard many people assume that private schools are highly favored by institutions like Oberlin. However, this current freshman class is made up of around 65% students from public schools.

Each year of school is important. However, we are not just focusing in on (or not looking at for that matter) one or two years. We're considering the whole picture, from gpa trends to increase in rigor and class selection. Often I'm asked if a student who maybe blossomed a bit late (had a rough first year) stands a chance. The answer to that is yes as long as that student has shown a strong upward trend and that they have turned things around.

SAT and ACT scores play an important part of the application process, but not the only part. They will not be the deciding factor, nor will a subset score. If a student is below our averages, we then look to see what other characteristics are in the application that would make us want to bend a bit on the scores. But it's still very competitive. The fact of the matter is that we are fortunate enough to have many great applicants who are strong academically as well as personally.

This is clearly a large topic. I'd encourage you and anyone else who'd like to discuss such topics further to contact your regional representative. Although, bringing up the questions on this type of forum is very helpful for others as well.

Posted by: Jesse Hernandez on February 11, 2010 4:43 PM

I play sax. May I know what is the requirement to join a band in campus?

Posted by: Wang, Chao on February 13, 2010 10:53 PM

I am an applicant for 2010 fall freshman. I learnt Oberlin offers excellent music programs. However, I would like to major in economy or finance of liberal and arts. Is there any possible for me to join the school band if I will be admitted to your school?

Posted by: Wang, Chao on February 13, 2010 10:56 PM

Hey Jesse,

I noticed that you are the counselor for Texas. I attend Memorial High in Houston. Have you ever visited Memorial or plan to in the upcoming year?

Posted by: Jordan on February 22, 2010 8:00 PM

My question is regarding foreign language. I'm a junior, and I took French my freshman and sophomore year, and decided not to this year. I speak Chinese at home though - does that count for anything? Thanks!

Posted by: C. on March 11, 2010 7:41 PM

Hi guys, sorry, I snoozed on the responses! Chao, there is no real requirement to play in a band on campus, you may audition for various ensembles as well as professors at the beginning of the year. You do not have to be a music major to have a rich musical life here, we even have a college community wind band.

Jordan, I haven't been to Memorial recently, but we have in the past and I will keep in on my list for this fall. However, I always do a regional info session (called an Oberlin Preview) in Houston where anyone can come and meet me. Sign up for our mailing list and you'll be notified when I get it scheduled. Hope to see you on the road!

C., we do see that you may speak a foreign language at home and take that into account, but we still prefer to see 3 years of foreign language in high school, at least through the 3rd level.

Posted by: Jesse Hernandez on March 26, 2010 2:59 PM

Hi, Jesse. I'm a soon-to-be senior at Scott City High in Missouri. It was a friend of mine, Krista LaFentres (she turned Harvard down for Oberlin), who got me interested in all that Oberlin has to offer. From the academics and professors to the rich personal infrastructure that makes up a charismatic and politically charged student body, everything, and I mean everything, attracts me to Oberlin! The only concern is my High School grades; they don't accurately represent how "book smart" I really am. There was a period during my Sophomore-Junior year where Mark Twain was my hero: "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." Sadly, that shows up on transcripts. I was a B average, sometimes even C average, student. I haven't taken the ACT/SAT yet, but I'm overly confident that I can receive a satisfactory score. I'm just terrified about those grades. How can I reassure Oberlin that I am the right choice? My grades might not represent me properly, but I have an outstanding political and social standing my community! Please help me; I live, breath, and dream Oberlin.

*Also, my school only offers 2 Foreign Language credits: both in only Spanish. I have 1.5 Spanish credits... will that be an issue?

Posted by: Conley on June 16, 2010 2:50 PM

Thanks so much for the info! I'm planning to apply for the Fall of 2011, and I was wondering about what constitutes "high school" classes. What I mean is, I took some high-school level classes when I was in 7th and 8th grade, but chose to drop an honors math class last year because I was doing too many other things and couldn't juggle it. I'm really afraid that this will hurt my chances of being accepted, although I'm taking a number of other AP and honors classes. I am still going to be in an advanced class this year (pre calc II)...just not the MOST advanced (math has never really been my thing; I suppose I'm more of a humanities person). Your thoughts?

Posted by: Marissa on August 24, 2010 12:20 PM

Hi guys, so sorry for my late response!


Remember that it's not just your transcript we are looking at. Your extra curricular involvement, background, recommendations, essay, everything in the application helps us learn who you are. And, hopefully, it will come across in the overall application that you are indeed more than your grades may let on. However, work hard this year to show that you have turned over a new leaf and can succeed in a rigorous curriculum.


It's great that you got a jump on the high school curriculum, however, we do prefer to see four years of math classes during your high school years. But, we also like to see that a student has gone at least through precalculus, which is sounds like you are doing. So, we won't see you as deficient (as mentioned in the first point above). Humanities may be your interest and strength, but keep pushing through those science and math courses for one more year to keep all academic areas strong.

Posted by: Jesse on September 3, 2010 11:11 AM

Hello Jesse! All of your posts are extremely helpful for those of us trying to navigate what feels like the labyrinth that is the admissions process. I am only a junior, but ever since taking the ACT the first time, college has been constantly on my mind. Much like Conley, I am completely and utterly in love with Oberlin. I truly believe that I will apply even if I lived across the country, but I am in NE Ohio. My parents have a four hour radius limit for my college choices, and the fact that Oberlin is so close makes me feel like I am meant to be there! What my excitement about knowing my dream school brings doesn't combat the nerves I have about being accepted. I have three questions. First, when is the earliest that I could overnight as a junior? Second, does the admissions dep. take visits and such into account? How can I show that I really am inspired by Oberlin? Third, I have held an unweighted 4.0 all three years of HS so far, but my freshman and sophomore years I took some regular classes instead of honors. How much will this hurt me? Oh, and I plan to apply early. Thank you :)

Posted by: Christy Wiseman on December 31, 2010 1:54 PM

Hi Christy!

I'm glad that you are so excited about Oberlin, and are considering applying ED. Being so close to home can definitely be a plus!

To answer your questions:

1. We offer overnight visits to students after May 1 of the Junior year. I believe we are planning a couple of overnight visit programs for Juniors this spring, but I currently don't have information on that. If you are on our mailing list, you will be notified when info is available.

2. We do make note of contact you've had with our office, be it a visit to campus, meeting a representative at a college fair, requesting an interview, etc. That is one way to demonstrate your interest, however, we also understand that sometimes students are unable to connect with us in so many ways. That's one reason we have our Supplement to the Common Application; it has a short essay that essentially asks why are you interested in Oberlin? You can also feel free to contact the admissions counselor responsible for your area and introduce yourself and express your interest. Our contact info is available on the admissions site.

3. Regarding your classes, in the end we just like to see that you are pushing yourself in all areas, and have a reason for taking the courses you have (especially if you end up not "covering your bases" as outlined above). Taking higher level classes is a plus, but each student needs to find their own course load balance that pushes but doesn't overload themselves.

Hope this was helpful, happy new year!

Posted by: Jesse on January 3, 2011 11:11 AM

That helps! And thank you for replying so quickly, the Ohio winter can seem to make time move much more slowly.

Posted by: Christy Wiseman on January 3, 2011 2:42 PM

This information was extremely helpful. I'm a junior in high school, and I'm definitely considering applying to Oberlin in the fall. I'm just curious though, do you take into account the available classes at a particular high school? I've moved several times, and this is my third high school. I took French I at my first high school and French II at my second, but my current school only offers Spanish. Also, the highest math class offered at my current school is AP Calculus, and I'm taking it right now. Will having only two years of French and three years of math on my transcript be detrimental to my application?

Posted by: Isobel on February 13, 2011 11:52 AM

Hi Isobel,

Sorry for my delayed response. We definitely consider not only what a school offers, but what situational elements may have limited a student's ability to take certain classes. In your case, we will definitely see the change in schools and understand that can sometimes be a limiting factor in terms of scheduling.

However, if it is something that concerns you, feel free to write a short paragraph explaining it all and submit it in the application as additional or supplemental info.

With all this in mind, your taking French only to level 2 shouldn't be an issue, and AP calc is a fine level of math to have gone through.

Posted by: Jesse on March 8, 2011 10:05 AM

Hello Jesse. Thank you for the helpful information. I am a sophomore and have recently become very interested in Oberlin.

Since I am interested in science, I am planning on taking six science classes throughout high school, but I will be taking the appropriate amount of courses in the other subjects. Will taking so many science classes instead of more math or english classes reflect negatively on my application?

Also, I enjoy challenging myself with a heavy curriculum but am getting many "B"s in all honors and AP courses. Would it be better to drop some of these classes or my band classes to raise my GPA or continue to challenge myself with these mediocre scores.

Also, I have heard that Oberlin looks for applicants with strong writing skills, but my english grades have always been my worst because I am terrible at writing under limited time. I am confident that I can write good essays given the time but my grades will not show this. Will this hurt me?

Posted by: Adam on May 22, 2011 4:33 PM

Dear Jesse,
I am currently a junior at Chagrin Falls High School, Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Additionally, I am on an IEP for a prenatal stroke, that resulted in me getting a mild form of spastic cerebral palsy. Consequently, I have never taken any AP or honors courses in English or history, my strong subjects because of my disability in math,which could result in my good grades suffering. I have a decent GPA so far, and I am confident I could take honors or AP classes my senior year. I am just interested if my lack of challenging courses will affect my chances of getting accepted at Oberlin before I apply my senior year.

Posted by: Grace on September 20, 2012 3:49 PM

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