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.