In Defense of the Mediocre High School Schedule

mediocre high school

After a nearly two decade college admissions stint, I took a step away from the full-time rat race last year. I wanted to spend more time with my family. I also began doing some part-time work as an admissions consultant (not the Operation Varsity Blues kind). Basically, families hire me to help shepherd their teen through the college exploration and application process.

Yes, I fully acknowledge the fact that this job even exists probably warrants an entire article unto itself. But right or wrong, the reality of the higher education industry is that there are some coachable pieces to the puzzle. And strategy can influence the admissions outcome.

Enter the independent admissions consultant. If your teen attends a large public school where the school counseling staff is already overburdened, it could be helpful. Same goes for if you have a teen who tends to respond better to guidance and deadlines from anyone other than a parent.

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The ‘Right’ College

One observation I’ve made over the past couple of years is that many of these high schoolers are often consumed with getting in to the “right” college. I’ve also learned that they often define “right” more based on rankings and popularity amongst peers than anything else.

Beginning freshman year, they make both academic and extracurricular choices based on how it might look on a college application. They take AP courses because “colleges want to see rigor.” And I’m not talking one or two AP classes. They’re loading up with AP everything! They’re spending summers in special pre-college programs, competing in international competitions, joining summer research teams, interning in a parent’s company, and they’re volunteering at the local homeless shelter because “it will look good on my college application.” Most of them also have straight A’s. And you know what, so be it. If that’s what makes you tick and a top tier school is your goal – let’s do this. I can help you.

But imagine my surprise when, during a consultation with a preliminary client last week, I saw a transcript with only one AP class. Buddy had almost straight A’s, but only one AP.

I pointed out to him that this might smack of laziness to colleges. I asked why he didn’t challenge himself more. His response was:

“I mean there’s more to life than just a ton of AP classes and all that extra work.”


Preach it, Buddy.

At that moment I wished I could hug through the Zoom call.

Now mind you, this wasn’t a kid who had slacked off. He had good courses, many were Honors level, and he had nearly straight A’s. He was good student. His attitude about school wasn’t cavalier. He just didn’t see a need to stress over loading up with AP level courses for… well, a higher ranked college. Did he have a mediocre high school schedule? No. It was definitely above average, and still gave him room for other stuff. That other stuff is important.

When I pointed out that at least one of the schools on his list was probably a real “reach school” with no more AP than he had, his response was basically, “OK, there are plenty of others.” He’s right. There are PLENTY of colleges that will still want him and his 4.0 GPA. Some will probably even offer him a scholarship if he chooses wisely and plays his cards right.

Here’s a refreshingly confident kid who refuses to play into the game of selective college admissions. He was smart enough early enough to recognize that you only have to spend your high school career overloaded with AP classes making all of your academic and extra-curricular choices based on what it will look like to an admissions committee if you’re aiming for the very small percentage of colleges that are in that very selective bracket.

Most schools are not. And you know what? You’re still going to get a solid education at the vast majority of the non top-tier schools.

There’s a School for You

Depending on your own personality and goals, you might even have a better experience at a school that is more of a “road-less-traveled” choice. Think of some of the most successful people you know. Let me clarify that I’m not defining “success” as having the biggest paycheck, the nicest house, or the fanciest car – though some of these people might also fall into those categories. What I’m talking about is who you admire and why you admire them. Someone who has a life well-lived. Where did these people attend college? Or did they? Some of them may have attended highly selective schools, but many (if not most) did not.

Standing Up to the Pressure

These days having the courage as a teenager to stand up to the peer (and sometimes parental) pressure to always do more and take more is to be commended. Of course there are consequences to this choice. These kids won’t have as many colleges on their list, but they’ll have plenty. There are over 4,000 colleges in the United States alone.

I’m not advocating laziness or underachievement, but I am advocating balance. Perhaps a re-framing of “achievement” and “success,” too. I’m advocating for time to become self-aware and recognize what makes you tick. If academic competition and college rankings excite you, then dive in! Those AP classes and Ivies are meant for kids like you. But if you’re more excited pursuing another passion and equally as comfortable acknowledging that [insert name of highly selective college] was never even on your list, then don’t load up on AP classes at the expense of nurturing other areas of your high school life and personal development. I’ve worked with too many kids who have lost balance in their high school lives as they chase this idea that they must get into X, Y, or Z college.

And P.S. parents? You need to get over the desire to be able to brag about your kid getting into [insert name of highly selective college] at the neighborhood party or family reunion. Instead you should be more excited that your kid developed enough self-awareness to know what type of school he or she wanted and why.

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