I recently shared a 17-floor vertical journey in my apartment building’s elevator with the mom of a high school junior. I’m well-known in my building as “the woman who gets kids into college,” so I wasn’t surprised when she asked if I could answer a question for her. “Sure,” I said.
“Well, I don’t know what science class my kid should take as a senior. What looks better: AP Environmental, Physics, or AP Psychology?” she asked.
She was clearly looking for a quick and easy answer—one class that is the secret to impressing college admissions officers who are now so overloaded that they’re spending 8 minutes or less on each application. Unfortunately, like most things related to college admissions, there is no easy answer. It all depends.
What science class you should be taking depends on is what kind of kid you are.
First, let’s break high school juniors (11th graders) down into three categories:
- The kid who wants to go into the sciences
- The kid who doesn’t want to go into the sciences
- The kid who has no idea whether they want to pursue science in college
Obviously, we’re all more complicated than these three categories, but they work well when we’re looking at a very specific situation, like what science class you should take as a senior. For each, there is a very different answer, but all are guided by three main questions:
- What are you interested in?
- What else are you taking?
- What are you signaling to a college?
The Kid Who Wants To Go Into The Sciences
If you are genuinely interested in a specific area of science, you should pursue it to the highest level you can at your school. So, if you haven’t done that—do it. Done. Easy.
If you’ve already taken the highest level available at your school, you need to do something that links in neatly. This course should still align with what you want to major in, so if you’re interested in medicine and you’ve taken Bio or AP Bio, take Psychology. If you’re interested in Environmental Sciences, take AP Environmental. If you want to major in mechanical engineering and you haven’t taken psychics, do that as soon as possible because that’s an issue. Start where you want to end up (your major in college) and create a logical route to that point.
The Kid Who Doesn’t Want To Go Into The Sciences
If you have no interest in the sciences and have zero intention of pursuing science in college, you should take a different route. First, we’re still assuming that you’re high achieving, so the easiest option is to go for an Advanced Placement or Honors course that you will enjoy enough to do well in. AP Psychology or AP Environmental are good choices if you’re more humanities minded.
If an AP or Honors course isn’t an option, you should still be pursuing something that you will both enjoy and do well in. This is because, while you aren’t interested in studying science, you are still trying to signal something to colleges through your choice. By taking a high-level course, you are signaling that you are inclined to take a competitive schedule. You are ambitious, you have a hunger to learn, and you can excel in a subject even if it isn’t something you’re passionate about.
The Kid Who Has No Idea
If you are a junior in high school and have no idea if you want to major in the sciences or not, you need to figure your stuff out. It may come as a surprise, but you’re probably not a Renaissance Man. If you try to do everything and be everything, you’re going to be overloaded and get burnt out—both of which will end up biting you in the butt when college admissions deadlines roll around.
No, we are not jerks, we are not trying to crush your dreams, and we do believe in people changing their mind. But what you are selling to colleges is a profile of a person who happens to be you. Unless you attend a specialized program, you will be able to change your mind once you are into college. First, though, you need to get into college.
A college application needs to have a narrative, so start by narrowing your interests down to two to three things that can be woven together. Then, choose a science class that fits into that narrative. If you pick theater design and history, it might make sense to take psychics, and you can find a way to incorporate set design into your projects.
Whatever it is that you pick, it needs to be something that will challenge you without overwhelming you. So if you’re nervous about taking AP Physics because you’ve heard it’s really hard, but you have a good relationship with the AP Enviro teacher, take AP Enviro. The name of the class doesn’t matter—but the level of challenge and the grade you get both do.
What if you aren’t required to take a science class? Can you just skip it?
No. No. No. Not only do many schools have distribution requirements that mean that your application won’t even be considered if you don’t have four years of science, but even those that don’t have requirements still look down on students who ‘cop out’ on what are traditionally seen as hard subjects like math, science, and language in their senior year.
And What If You’ve Already Taken All Of The Science Classes At Your School?
If you’ve already taken all of the science offerings available at your school, try looking outside of your school. Can you take a class at a local community college? Or is an independent study an option? If you don’t know where to start, give us a call.
The Final Verdict
Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t say all of this in 17 floors. Students aren’t all the same, they don’t need the same thing, and there’s no such thing as a formula for a “perfect” college application. Not everyone is going to get into an Ivy League-level school (Shocker.), so not everyone should have an Ivy League schedule. Be realistic about who you are as a student, be kind to yourself when you plan your schedule, and remember that the 3 points between a 93 and a 96 make a big difference—so set yourself up for the 96.
If you’re confused about what you want to signal to a college, we’re pros at formulating your ideal application.