What admissions counselors are looking for
When it comes to getting into college, what's better: Getting an B in an honors or Advanced Placement course or an A in a regular or unweighted class?
"This is the million dollar question, for sure," said Lynda McGee, college counselor at Downtown Magnets High School, Los Angeles. "What do the colleges really want? They want honors and AP courses with an A in all of them. With the top 50 colleges in the country getting more and more selective, what is a student to do?"
Colleges want you to succeed
Admissions counselors want to see "students take the most challenging and rigorous curriculum available within their high school in which they will be successful," said Keith Gehres, director of outreach and recruitment, undergraduate admissions, Ohio State University.
There's no one-size-fits-all solution.
"This is unique for students based on their strengths and interests. While we do not expect a student to take every AP or honors course offered in their high school, we are looking to see if students are taking full advantage of the courses available. This balances with students succeeding in these courses based on the rigor and grades earned," Gehres said.
Top schools more selective
The first step toward admission to a top school is a full evaluation of a student's academic credentials.
"We value a rigorous high school curriculum, but we also value strong performance in those rigorous classes," said Doug Christiansen, vice provost for university enrollment affairs and dean of admissions and financial aid at Vanderbilt University. "So while it may sound obvious, achieving strong grades while in a strong curriculum is the best of all possible scenarios.
"We encourage students to undertake the toughest set of courses they can successfully manage, being careful to include four full years of five academic subject areas (from among English, foreign language, math, natural sciences and social sciences courses) while in high school," Christiansen said.
Choose AP classes wisely.
"Stretch yourself, but don't take an AP course in a subject that you struggle in," McGee said.
In today's educational environment, a C is the new D, she said.
"Take what you can handle, and that does not mean five or six AP courses at the same time. Do your best, but don't define your worth by the selectivity of a campus. The most popular people are not superior people, and the same goes for colleges," McGee said.
Know yourself as a student and make wise choices when choosing classes, said Mary Lou Sullivan, founder of MLS Educational Consultants in McLean, Virginia.
"It is important to know the workload one is facing as well as the demands of the different AP course time commitment. Students, despite a need for rigor in their classes, should not find themselves so stretched that all classes are negatively impacted," Sullivan said.
Find a balance
When selecting classes, reflect on your current performance interests and post-secondary aspirations to create a schedule that balances engagement, rigor and time, said Krista Irish, senior program director at MLS Educational Consultants.
"A student should take an honors or AP class if she has demonstrated the aptitude to succeed in it, but she should take a regular/easier course if she finds the subject difficult, uninteresting or simply needs more balance in her schedule so she can challenge herself in other areas. This holistic approach to scheduling enables a student to succeed and flourish in and out of the classroom," Irish said.
If taking a tough course load with AP classes, preview the AP textbooks over the summer to prepare.