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For Aspiring College Students, The Clock Starts Ticking This Week

Sep 01, 2015 03:11PM ● By Rick Spencer

Temperatures are predicted to reach 90 degrees and the feel of summer is still heavy in the air as Tewksbury’s roster of high school students head back to school this week.

So why not take it slow, and ease back into things, at least for the first few weeks of school, right?

Well, maybe not, especially if you are a student who aspires to attend college in the coming years.

Almost unanimously, college admissions representatives will tell you that the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum is the No. 1 factor that almost all colleges consider when evaluating a college application.  While an impressive set of scores on the SAT tests and a Grade Point Average anywhere close to a 4.0 certainly can’t hurt your chances of getting admitted to college, most admissions reps want to know one thing – did you challenge yourself by signing up for some of the toughest courses your high school offers?

Colleges aren’t necessarily looking for straight A students, especially if a lot of those straight A’s came in courses that most students could pass without cracking a book. Admissions officers would much rather see students challenge themselves with Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) courses as opposed to skating through the easiest courses they can find in a quest for a class ranking that they can brag about.

For openers, colleges are placing less and less emphasis on class rank these days, primarily because an over-inflated GPA achieved by taking easy courses will still move you toward the top of the class rank charts. But getting good grades in easy courses proves nothing about a student’s ability to handle the tougher, more advanced course load they’ll inevitably encounter in college.

Let’s face it, when it comes to academics, all high schools are not created equal. In general, private high schools offer a higher percentage of tougher courses, because the vast majority of private school students aspire to go on to college.

And here in Massachusetts, public high schools are mandated to provide a quality education to everyone, regardless of what their career aspirations are. Right or wrong, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts measures a public school’s progress by looking at how well its collective student body does on the MCAS tests. So public school administrations have to make sure that their schools teach the basics (i.e “teach to the MCAS”) or they could lose all-important state education funding.

So the system itself sets up aspiring college students at public high schools for possible failure. By offering many basic and intermediate level courses for kids who aren’t interested in college, public schools open the door for aspiring college students to make poor course selection choices, and waste four years putting together an academic resume that won’t get them into the colleges they’d like to attend.

But you can avoid the “Easy A” trap if you are proactive. My youngest daughter tells a story about the first day of school in her sophomore year at TMHS when it became apparent that one of her core requirement classes was loaded with upperclassmen who needed this class in order to fulfill graduation requirements, but who had no intention of taking the class seriously.

“After about half an hour I knew I wasn’t going to get anything out of this class, so I asked for a pass to go to the bathroom and I went down to guidance and transferred out,” she said. “The teacher is still probably wondering what happened to me in the bathroom.”

So even though the weather is hot and sticky, it’s still a great time to review your fall course selections and transfer out of that basket weaving course and into something more challenging. Most high schools will let you make a change or two to your schedule, if class sizes permit, even after the fall semester starts. But if you wait until the frost is on the pumpkin to decide that you’re not being challenged this fall, it will probably be too late to switch.

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourselves. A solid B or a B-plus in an Honors course on an AP course will impress a college admissions officers even more than an A-plus in an easy course. And even if your first crack at an honors or an AP course doesn’t produce a great grade, keep plugging. Colleges are impressed by students who stick with it and show progress and improvement over the duration of their high school career.

So don’t wait until your junior or senior year to start thinking about your academic resume. Even for freshmen and sophomores, the clock is ticking.


Rick Spencer is a financial advisor with two daughters currently in college. He is the co-founder of “Develop Your College Game Plan,” an organization dedicated to helping local students navigate the mirky waters of the college admissions and financial aid processes.

Develop Your College Game Plan is offering a free seminar entitled “How To Pay For College Without Going Broke” on Sept. 21 at the Chelmsford police station. For more information and to register to attend the event, go to:



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