Episode 20: Academic Rigor: Which High School Classes Should I Choose?
July 12, 2021
By now you know that so many things go into a university’s decision of whether to admit someone.
They might look at extracurriculars, essays, letters of recommendation, demonstrated interest, test scores (if you submit them and the school isn't test-optional), and, of course, grades.
But higher-ed institutions don't just take a surface-level view of those A's, B's and C's. They look closer to see just how difficult the classes were — something called academic rigor.
That can bring up a lot of questions, like: Is it better to get an A in a standard class or a B in an honors one? Will a student be penalized if their school doesn't offer advanced classes? And what about prerequisites — classes that you must take in high school to be even considered by certain schools?
In this episode of College Admissions Insider, we untangle all those questions and more. Our guest is Jill Medina, Bucknell's senior associate dean of Admissions. Jill has worked in higher education for more than 25 years, including 17 years in selective college admissions.
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Episode 20 Transcript
[00:00:06] BW: Welcome to College Admissions Insider, the podcast where we believe no detail is too small if it helps you get into the college of your dreams. I'm Bryan Wendell from Bucknell University.
[00:00:16] BT: I'm Brooke Thames, also from Bucknell University. Bryan, we know that so many things go into a school's decision of whether to admit someone. Schools might look at extracurriculars, essays, letters of recommendation, demonstrated interest (which we talked about a little bit on our last episode), test scores — if you submit them and the school isn't test optional — and, of course, grades.
[00:00:35] BW: Yes, that's a lot. Speaking of grades Brooke, schools don't just take a surface level view of those A's and B's and C's. They look closer to see just how difficult those classes were. That's something called academic rigor.
[00:00:48] BT: That can bring up a lot of questions like, is it better to get an A in a standard class or B in an honors one? Will a student be penalized if their school doesn't offer classes like say AP world history when other schools do?
[00:01:00] BW: Right, and what about prerequisites — classes that you have to take in high school to even be considered for certain schools and certain programs? There's so many questions, and we have just the person to answer them. Our guest is Jill Medina, Bucknell’s senior associate dean of admissions. Jill has worked in higher education for more than 25 years, including 17 years in selective college admissions. Welcome back to the podcast Jill.
[00:01:24] JM: Thank you so much for having me. I am so excited to be here. It's almost unbelievable but this was my 18th college admission cycle when we selected Bucknell’s class of 2025. I couldn't be happier to be here.
[00:01:41] BT: Yeah, yeah. Lots of experience there. To start, can we just ask the big-picture question? What do selective schools like Bucknell want to see on a high school transcript?
[00:01:50] JM: Both of you defined what the high school transcript is. It is the record of achievement during the four years of what are considered high school. It's important that we understand that this is a central piece to the student's application, because we are examining their success in high school and, of course, postulating their ability to succeed at college.
Most schools will tell you, right off the bat what they want. You'll look in their course catalog at the schools that you're researching, and you'll find what those things are. If you look in Bucknell's catalog, you'll find a list. We want four years of English and math, three years of social science and lab science, and two years of a single foreign language. Some of this may sound familiar because many high schools have pretty similar if not identical requirements, so it's fairly easy for the students to meet those requirements. But some schools will have a bit of difference, and some of this usually follows around expectations around foreign language. You'll notice that some colleges and universities want four years or three years of a single foreign language. Some will count American Sign Language and some won't. Some may want math through at least precalculus or calculus. Some of those areas that really depends.
[00:03:07] BW: Yeah, and to follow up on that, are there other required minimums that students should watch out for, looking at not just what schools want to see but what they actually are requiring of students that they're going to consider?
[00:03:20] JM: Yes, I think that I did mention the foreign language difference and the math difference. I think it's important to also take a look at the sciences, because some schools will want you to have three years of lab science, and they're specifically thinking about chemistry, biology and physics. Some schools offer psychology with a lab component, but the school and perhaps their major may or may not recognize that.
So they will have to take a look at each school that they're applying to, see what those requirements are. This can get a bit tricky for some students if they are coming from schools that have different curriculum from outside of the United States. Some schools, it may seem like the courses don't align. This is a good time to enlist the assistance of a college admissions representative if you get into a position where you're having trouble dialing down on if what you have will meet a requirement. Typically, lab science, math and foreign language are those areas that you may see a bit of variety.
Most schools are going to want four years of English and four years of math. It's just at what level you get in math, that can be a bit of a discussion.
[00:04:32] BT: Is there any flexibility to those minimum requirements? Say a student reaches their senior year and realizes that, oops, they need two more years of math or foreign language. Is there any new maneuverability there? Are they out of luck?
[00:04:45] JM: That's a great question, because I know that course selection for high school students can come in a variety of forms. At some schools, you only have one list of classes that you can take, and depending on what level you're in, you don't get any options. That can present a conflict for some students and a bit of anxiety if they're seeing that a school expects something that they don't have access to.
I think whatever your situation, as long as you explain it. You can have your guidance counselor explain it. If you're applying to schools that require an interview, you can talk about it in your interview. For some students, they may not be able to take, let's use foreign language as an example, they may not be able to take a third year because it conflicts with a requirement. As long as we know what the context is, then we will have that understanding of why something didn't happen. For some students who have a learning difference, and they receive a foreign language waiver or a math waiver, as long as we understand what that context is, again, that's the important piece of it.
So there is some flexibility. You definitely don't want to think about some of these things, let's say, second semester of your senior year. These are things that you want to think about, starting in your sophomore year, especially in your junior year.
[00:06:04] BW: Yeah, that's great. Start making that plan just as early as you possibly can. I guess, generally, it would be better to take more classes and you need than, obviously, fewer classes and you need I would imagine. Speaking of course selection, there's another key aspect here that a lot of students are facing a decision between honors and AP, which is Advanced Placement, or IB, which is International Baccalaureate, and so-called normal or regular classes. What do you tell a student who is deciding between, say like an English class that's categorized as a regular English class versus one of those honors AP or IB English classes?
[00:06:45] JM: That's a good question. I know for some students, we get this question quite frequently, as well as parents. This is probably in the top 10 of questions typically asked. If your school offers a tiered curriculum. Let's say for the purpose of this example, we have regular classes, honors, and then AP or advanced — some schools just simply call them advanced. If you have the option, and you have the availability, most selective colleges will prefer that you take a more rigorous course load.
We would to be able to see that you can handle an advanced challenge. That is the preference. If you have IB, there are many schools that consider the International Baccalaureate to be the top tier that's available globally. Now, some schools don't have that depending on their size and where you live. As long as you're taking what your school offers to the best of your ability. I think that's the important thing to remember.
[00:07:47] BT: Building on that a little bit, when it comes to the grades that you get in those different courses, for an application reviewer, would you rather see someone who got an A in a standard English class and really excelled there? Or a student who would challenge themselves in maybe an honors or an AP English class and walked away with a B?
[00:08:07] JM: I think this is a tough question, because there's a lot of subtext that we could read into this. Why is the GPA important? Is it what we're going to focus on when we review applications? How much pressure should a student be under to be so focused on that number? Because as an admissions application reviewer, that is not really the centerpiece of how we think about reviewing a student's academic record or high school transcript.
We look at the context of the school. We start there. What does the school have to offer? Then we look at what did the student take? What were their choices? Again, we've hope that the student has created a context for us, because if a school does...and I'm going to go back to the example — let's say the school does have a three tiered system, and we see that the applicant has taken all standard level classes but yet the school had all of these other opportunities, and it's not explained to us. We're left wondering, why the student didn't do it. Were they afraid of the rigor? Where they're not able to? Did they transfer to the school as an eighth grader and not place into the classes?
To be honest, selective schools prefer that you take the top rigor available to you. For some students, this presents a challenge because let's say they are humanities/arts person, and they want to take an optional humanities class or a communications class, and they've taken pre-calculus and that's not their interest, they don't want to go into business or engineering. We have to balance out a little bit of choice that the student might have that aligns with their interest, versus what their parents expected them, what their schools require for graduation and then what colleges want to see. You can see how this would be a bit tricky. The general rule of thumb, meet the number that the schools or colleges or universities are asking of you, and then try to take as much rigor as you can.
[00:10:11] BW: Speaking of that rigor, it's seems obvious to me that within the same school, a B plus in an honors class is going to be considered more valuable, for lack of a better word, than a B plus in a regular class. But how do you compare two students at different schools where that B plus may be worth more at school A versus school B? I'm really curious what you as an application reviewer thinks when you're when you're seeing those two options.
[00:10:43] JM: Yes. When you think about a school like Bucknell where our freshmen class goal was about 1,000 students to enroll — and we received over 11,200 applications — it's easy to think that we are really just comparing everybody. But we do only look at a student by student within their context of their own school.
We don't take two students from, let's say, Los Angeles and we don't take all of the Los Angeles schools and students and compare them. We take students from one high school. If we have more than one application, each student is viewed within the context of that. It's not like they're compared against each other, either, because of a curriculum is robust — even if a curriculum is a standard curriculum that you go to a very small school, and you don't have choices — we don't necessarily compare students against each other because for Bucknell, we want students to apply for which school they want to be part of.
Do they want to be part of Arts and Sciences? If so, which major? Same thing for the management program. If so, what management program, and engineering? So, it's not as easy to say that we're comparing apples to apples or oranges to oranges. There's an entire array of things that go into it. Each student is viewed on their own, within the context of their high school.
[00:12:13] JM: Does that mean then that you have a pretty good idea about which courses a school offers when you're reviewing a student's application? Is that what I'm hearing?
[00:12:19] JM: Yes, we do. We get a lot of information from the school. The school typically sends us what's called a school profile. This is something that outlines the high school. It will tell us the name of the principal, the size of the school enrollment, some context about the district. Some schools will have a state rating on their profile. What's very important is it lists the type of curricular choices that the students have.
It will tell us if they rank students. How many seniors they have. What percentage go on to colleges of two year, four year, service in the military and employment. We get a lot of information. Then the school counselor usually sends a letter of recommendation or a report that tells us the number of honors classes that they offer. So when we see an applicant from a high school, we do have information about that high school.
[00:13:13] BW: Jill, following up on that. Could a family member or a student ask their own high school for that profile? Like, take a look at what's in it and maybe use the information in there to somehow help them in some way.
[00:13:25] JM: I believe most schools do make the school profile available to the families. Many schools will do what I just called junior nights where they will have a big program, they'll gather all the juniors together to talk about the process, to talk about timelines. I know if it's the first time you're going through it as a parent, or if nobody in your family has gone to college, that night is information overload. There's a saying that you feel the firehose is open, and it's just coming at you, because there's some new terms that people haven't used typically, things that they haven't thought about.
Generally, you can find your school's profile online, or you can ask the school counselor or guidance counselor and they'd be happy to share it. At least that's been my experience.
[00:14:10] BW: Yeah, I’d be curious to go back and see mine from when I was in high school. Speaking of, I did speech and debate in high school, and I was never even close to being in the running for the valedictorian, but one of my speech and debate teammates was, and this was a large public school in Texas. One year, she actually decided not to take the speech and debate course with the rest of the team, because the maximum GPA for that course was a 4.0. Actually, that would have brought down her GPA, because she was getting presumably 4.5 and even 5.0 in AP and IB classes.
I bring this up because I'm wondering how extracurricular activities and extracurricular courses like speech and debate, or band, or choir might factor into that transcript review? Should students avoid those courses that in some cases might actually bring down their grade point average? Because they're not seen as quite as rigorous, even if that's something they're passionate about, and they enjoy.
[00:15:09] JM: Wow, that's a big question. There's so much going on in high school, and to mash this all into such a congested time period, focusing on transcript and all the choices. Let's take some of the basics. A lot of colleges are going to start the transcript review with your five academic areas: English, math, social science, foreign language and lab science. That is the heart of many schools’ review. Some schools won't even look at any of your other classes. Some schools will do a whole GPA of everything that you've taken.
That's going to depend on the college and university that you're applying to. You can ask the admission staff, “When you look at my transcript, do you look at the five academic areas? Or do you do a complete GPA?” Every school will definitely give you a different answer. Depending on what that answer is, and what types of schools you are looking at, you want the students to meet the graduation requirements of the high school. You want them to look at the colleges, universities that they're going to be applying to.
The reality is that some students are really driven to achieve at a level where they are going to want to take everything that's available, where they get an extra half a point or an extra point in their GPA because they are success driven, they're numbers driven, and that's their achievement and that's how they feel great success. If that works for you, I think that's terrific, but for some other students, they have choices because they like things that they're not going to get a grade for. Maybe that's community service, or they've been involved in a religious organization in their community since they were a small child. For some, it's athletics. This is somewhere where the student really has to weigh the academic, the personal, the physical, the spiritual. It all goes into how healthy are you in your high school curriculum and where do you want to shine.
[00:17:15] BT: I imagine taking those courses that you are taking for fun, or that you might not take just because you're looking for that sparkling A. Those can, I'm sure, supplement your application in other ways and help boost it maybe in an essay section where you get to explain your experience, and what you learned from that and the skills that it helped you develop.
[00:17:15] JM: Absolutely, because most selective schools do what's called a holistic review. We are looking for the whole student. How are you unique in your world? We're not asking you to be unique in the entire world, but what are your passions, your interests? Where have you been able to demonstrate that or grow in those areas? That's an excellent point.
[00:17:59] BT: For sure. Finally, while things seem to be returning to something that looks somewhat close to normal, the pandemic is still not yet over. Even things seem to be changing for the better, the effects on high school transcripts will probably be felt for years to come. Some students might have struggled academically or even taken less rigorous courses during the pandemic, with so many different things going on in their lives. How will colleges look at this time when reviewing transcripts?
[00:18:28] JM: Many colleges — and this has been all over the media — are waiving standardized test scores as a sign that we realized that students haven't had access to some of the things that they normally would. For some students, the pandemic has impacted their transcript, and we may see semesters or grading periods where a student receives a pass or a fail as opposed to a letter grade.
There are many bumps in the road that can happen. Some of them are bigger than others. The benefit of a holistic review is that we get the context — we’re able to work with you. If a student has any further questions and want to talk about, “Well my school did this,” and they just want to see how we view it, we really aren't going to hold things against a student. We aren't punitive in nature. If all of a sudden, your school decides that you're not going to get grades, and they're going to give you a pass fail, we're not going to say, “Okay, well, we can't look at you then because you didn't get A's, B's and C's.”
So we don't try to negatively view what a student's doing. What we try to do is see you in the most positive light throughout your application. If there is something to communicate, I think it's a great idea to be in touch with the admissions office.
[00:19:49] BW: That's great. Yeah, and I guess it all goes back to something that I learned in this episode, which is that you're really not comparing students from one school to another. You're looking that student within the context of their high school, and it sounds like you're going to be understanding about the challenges that every student around the world has faced during the pandemic.
[00:20:08] JM: Yes, and even outside of a pandemic. Different communities have some big things going on. A Number of years ago with the wildfires in California, there are some schools if it’s a regional incident, we will give deadline extensions. There are some schools that if a student has to pause their education, and they receive incomplete. There's a whole host of things that will show up on a transcript that we try to get to the heart of. If we have questions, we are certainly going to call the college counselor and see if there's something that we're missing, or if there's something on the transcript we don't understand, or something in the school profile. We do try to visit schools and get to know the school counselor, so that we have a relationship. Again, it's understanding the context for the student.
[00:20:58] BW: That's great. Well, I learned a whole lot about academic rigor today that I didn't know. Thank you so much, Jill, for joining us. This has been a really interesting and, I would say, important discussion.
[00:21:08] BT: Thanks to our listeners. If you liked this episode, please feel free to share it with your friends and family. Be sure to rate us and subscribe.
[00:21:15] BW: We also know that some of you listen to this podcast through our website bucknell.edu. We'd love for you to try listening through your favorite podcast app. All you do is search for College Admissions Insider in whatever app you use, and that way you won't miss a single episode.
[00:21:31] BT: Speaking of our next episode. It will be out in just two weeks. Until then you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org send us your questions or ideas for future episodes.
[00:21:42] BW: If you're looking to learn more about Bucknell, social media is a great way to do that. You can find us @BucknellU on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. There's also our student run Instagram account, which is really fun follow — that's @iamraybucknell. We also will put those links down in the show notes.
[00:22:00] BT: Thank you all for listening and see you next time.