smart teenage girl with backpack and notebookMegan was a bright, articulate young lady who prided herself on being a straight-A student throughout her three-plus years in high school. Her SAT scores were 750 verbal, 750 math, and 730 writing. Her dream was to attend the University of Virginia. When she received her rejection letter, she was devastated and perplexed. Hadn’t she presented herself as a more-than-able student?

I was Megan’s guidance counselor throughout her high school career. When she told me the news, I opted to call the UVA admissions office in the hope that someone would review her application and give me some information to relay to Megan. I knew what was coming, but it was important for Megan to hear directly from the source.

To digress for a moment, during the course selection process each year, she was asked to challenge herself in honors or AP courses. Megan, with her parents’ approval, opted not to do this. The answer from the admissions office was that, although she was active in the school community and a strong student, “She never bothered to step out of the box and challenge herself in a more competitive academic setting. We have so many applicants who do just that, Megan eliminated herself.”

To AP or Not to AP

Why take an AP course? Generally the environment in an AP classroom is more intellectual and the demands are greater. Every admissions officer knows that, so understanding it is integral to the assessment of a college application. But if a particular school doesn’t offer accelerated classes, those students aren’t penalized. To make proper assessments, admissions offices have a profile of each school the applicants attend.

The next question to consider is what the ramifications are for a student who doesn’t earn an A when taking a chance on a more challenging class. I found that when such a situation arose, the student wrote an explanation of the grade as part of the application. The admissions people want to understand as much as they can about an applicant and appreciate this additional insight. Tackling more daunting material also helps a student learn more about himself, which ultimately helps to build self-confidence.

Life doesn’t always give us an A, and colleges are aware of that. But a further benefit of taking appropriate academic chances and developing a better understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses is that this journey becomes a wonderful subject for a “self” essay for the admissions package.

These high school years are a time to continue to learn about oneself; develop personal and academic strengths; understand individual weaknesses; and in doing so ultimately begin to explore career paths for the future. Support from home is key to the success of this exploration process, so encourage your child to reach for the stars.

Roz Silverstein was a high school guidance counselor for 25 years, with a caseload of 50 to 60 seniors a year.

Have you and your teen struggled with decisions involving AP courses? What did you ultimately decide and why?