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A Comprehensive Guide to Strategic Academic Planning and Course Selection

When it comes to selecting courses for the next academic year, it can often feel like there’s a lot of pressure to strike the perfect balance between a difficult schedule and one that will allow students to get the best grades possible. This article emphasizes the importance of formulating a four-year academic plan to avoid this stress, and offers insights for international academic systems as well.

The college search and application process in the U.S. can feel scary and overwhelming, but there are definite steps you can take to ease the stress. Today, we’re going to discuss the importance of making a four-year academic plan and address the age-old question of “taking an easier course and getting an A vs. taking a harder course and getting a B.”

We feel strongly that mapping out each of the four years of high school classes, side-by-side, allows you to see the progression in each academic subject in a very clear way. (See below for a helpful template.)

Considerations & Challenges

Taking into account what your school has recommended for you while keeping in mind your own personal goals may present some challenges. For example, if you are interested in engineering but your high school’s progression will end with a course lower than calculus (and really, to be competitive, your goal should be AP Calculus), you might want to consider the possibility of accelerating through a summer course. Does your school offer it? Will they allow it on your transcript from another institution?

Colleges recommend students take all four years of the five core academic areas: English, Math, Science, History, Language. This will likely mean taking courses beyond the high school’s graduation requirements, and while there are exceptions that can be considered, students should strongly consider following this guideline. And yes, your course choices for senior year matter, even though you will likely apply before any grades are available for your applications.


What are some potential exceptions? The answer is ‘it depends.’ It depends on the student’s interests and possible college major. It depends on what the high school offers in its own curriculum. It depends on the level of rigor that is manageable given a student’s other obligations and commitments. But here are a few common scenarios:

If I will complete the AP level of a World Language course in Grade 11, should I take whatever Language elective comes next or can I switch to something else?

Can you replace the senior year language course with something more specific to your academic interests/major?  Perhaps double up in science or math instead?

If I’m going to be a business major, can I take AP Statistics instead of Calculus/AP Calculus?

We recommend considering ‘in addition to, not in place of’ a core course.

If I’m a STEM student, do I need to take Honors/AP English courses?

The answer to this is yes, though you may not ‘need’ to take a history/social science course senior year if you have the ability to double up in something more appropriate to a STEM major.

Balance is Key

In general, you should plan for the most rigorous schedule available within which you can be the most successful. Colleges want the tough courses and they want the A grades (though it may be worth challenging yourself with an Honors/AP course if you haven’t taken any, even if it means earning a B). Colleges also know students have lives outside of the classroom. Finding the right balance is key: keep in mind that maintaining or increasing your extracurricular activity involvement while also maintaining or increasing rigor over the four years can sound easier than it actually is!

Outside Your Comfort Zone

College admission has become increasingly more selective each year, and students need to demonstrate achievement in multiple academic subjects at the most selective colleges. A Dean of Admission once shared this quote, which highlights the competitiveness within an application pool: “On our campus, physics students need to know Shakespeare and humanities students need to know physics. So to stand out in our review, successful applicants have both.”

Remember, you are not simply applying as an individual; your application will be read in the context of your school, of course, but also in the context of the college’s applicant pool, which includes students from all over the country and abroad.

Other Academic Systems

Speaking of which, we’ll switch gears a bit here and offer some course planning thoughts and considerations if you reside outside of the US and your academic plan includes A-Levels, GSCEs or IB.

British Curriculum

  • GSCEs are the only actual grades Admission Offices will see.
  • A-Levels are predicted grades. Rigor is key but consider subjects that you enjoy and tie into your narrative.
  • It’s probably better to have 4 A-Levels that you stick with rather than choosing something like Further Maths and dropping it (especially if you are more focused on Humanities).

IB Curriculum

  • IB offers a broader curriculum than A-Levels and is more similar to the AP curriculum.
  • Generally students take 3 Standard and 3 Higher subjects (but you can take 4 Higher subjects).
  • Additionally, students will take classes in the DP Core which require extensive writing, research, and supportive activities related to Creativity, Activity, and Service.

A common question is, if your school offers a choice between A-Levels or IB, which is better? The simple answer is that college admission offices don’t necessarily have a preference, so whichever system you choose the main objective is to do well and be able to balance your course load with your extracurricular activities.

Final Thoughts

In closing, we recommend approaching the course planning process as early in high school as you can. Make a draft before Grade 9 and plan out each year through Grade 12. Meet with your school counselor or advisor to discuss your goals. Keep a copy and update it each year as you progress through your courses because, as we all know, things can change! And if you're starting this planning process after Grade 9, it’s still a helpful exercise that will potentially offer ideas of how to catch up or improve your current progression.

If you can’t accelerate in math or your school doesn’t offer courses in a particular subject, then consider taking an online course or a summer course at a local college. While these aren’t classes that will show up on your transcript, they are something you can add to your application file and demonstrate that you went above and beyond to pursue a passion.

Good luck with your academic planning and get in touch with an ESM counselor if you have any questions!