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Tips for the college-bound: Choosing high school electives

February 5, 2021
image of student holding stack of books

Advice on which courses to take—and why—from a dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Rochester.

Across the nation, high school students are being asked to select courses for the next school year. Since students generally have room in their schedules for more than the minimum requirements in core disciplines such as English, math, social studies, and science, that leaves them for opportunities to choose elective courses. Some students opt for additional courses in core disciplines; others take advantage of offerings targeted to a particular interest, passion, or potential career. Either way, they’ll likely only be able to choose a few out of dozens offered.

Do they choose courses directed at their expected major in college? Or should they pick courses that will give them a broader knowledge of the arts or sciences?

Robert Alexander, the dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management for Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester, offers some tips for students trying to make those hard decisions.

1. Talk to your counselor or mentor.

When asked to advise a student on their high school class selections, my response is: First consult with the people at your high school who know you, your aspirations, and your interests best. For many students that will be a school counselor, and for others, a valued teacher or mentor.

Here’s why: selecting only the courses that would be most impressive to a selective admissions committee would be fairly straightforward—choose the most rigorous ones offered at your school. But very few students are capable of excelling across the board in the most difficult courses in every subject. In addition, some very talented students applying to college may be coming from high schools that offer few advanced classes.

Experts at your school should have a much better perspective on the menu of options available and each student’s aptitude. From the admissions office perspective, we wouldn’t want a student to get in over their heads, become overwhelmed by a full slate of difficult courses, and end up with straight C’s.

2. Interest means engagement.

Students deserve a big say in which courses they choose. They know which subjects excite them most, and which teachers they’ve either connected with in the past or heard great things about from friends and classmates. A happy student, one who looks forward to exploring course material, is often likely to earn a higher grade, so I encourage students to select more rigorous classes in subject areas that pique their interest.

Particular high schools may offer honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate courses which offer an enhanced academic experience to students; some schools also offer dual-enrollment courses at nearby colleges. Admission officers are aware of, and consider in our review of applicants, the wide range of advantages some very privileged college-bound students have. We do our best to review each applicant holistically, within the context of their available opportunities, and account for those inequities.

The important thing is how students have taken advantage of the chances they DO have to explore their interests and passions.

3. Excel in core academic courses across subject areas.

Most selective colleges and universities are looking for students who have prepared themselves broadly across academic subject areas. We want to see demonstrated aptitude over all four years of high school in these core academic areas: English, math, sciences, social studies, foreign language, and the arts.

Students who have a strong interest in specialized college majors like engineering, architecture, or an accelerated premedical program should pay special attention to excelling in rigorous math classes. If a student has an emerging interest in a specific career, shadowing a professional who works in that field is likely to provide more perspective than most high school courses labeled “architecture,” “engineering,” “computer science,” or “medicine.”

If specialized elective courses are available in addition to rigorous classes in the core academic subject areas, they’re fine to explore, but they shouldn’t be taken in lieu of the basic foundational subject areas mentioned above, which will demonstrate a readiness to succeed in nearly any university program. These electives can be taken at any time they fit in well alongside the core courses, and don’t result in an overloaded schedule with too much seat time or an unmanageable volume of assignments. School guidance counselors should be the best resource for helping weigh which courses—and when to take them. When in doubt, stick to the core.

4. Don’t focus exclusively on electives related to a prospective major.

Students with a deep desire to explore a particular field should absolutely seek to learn more about it by taking relevant coursework. They may also do so through volunteering or shadowing a professional in that career, or perhaps by finding a summer job that allows them to get a look behind the curtain.

But most selective colleges and universities do not expect entering students to be certain about their intended major or career field. In fact, if a student is unsure about their college major, they’re hardly alone. Approximately 80 percent of students in the United States end up changing their major at least once, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, partly because too many students feel pressure to make an uninformed early choice.

At the University of Rochester, students can list an intended major on their application or apply as “exploratory” students. Either way, our unique curriculum intentionally provides breadth across academic disciplines, the ability to dive deeply into a specific subject area, and opportunities for real-world engagement, with plenty of time before students formally have to declare their major. Plus, our faculty members serve as their mentors – Rochester professors want to teach undergraduates precisely because they love helping them find their passions.

5. Don’t feel the need to select courses based on your career plans.

Often students may choose courses related to a planned major because they believe that major will enhance their career prospects. But a student’s college major is often less important to their future job prospects than many people believe. Here are some results from a report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems:

  • An astounding 93 percent of employers agree that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.
  • Four out of five employers agree that all students should acquire broad knowledge across subjects in the humanities, arts, and sciences.

And here’s a myth-busting result from another recent study: the top factor associated with a six-figure salary was not one’s college major but having taken a large share of classes outside one’s major. The researcher, president emeritus of the Great Lakes Colleges Richard Detweiler, said faculty engagement on a personal level seemed to be the factor in the undergraduate experience that had the greatest impact on life success by the measures he studied.

Most university admission offices consider your high school transcript to be the most important factor in your college application, especially now that standardized tests are becoming increasingly optional at selective schools (the University of Rochester became test optional in 2019). So remember, don’t make this more complex or stressful than it is. Simply put, students should challenge themselves with difficult coursework and earn high marks in those courses.

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