Sooner or later, every college-bound high school student wonders: am I taking the right classes to get into the college I want to attend? It’s a good question and one worth exploring.

First and foremost, it’s important to realize that not all colleges look for the exact same thing on applicant transcripts. So a better question to ask is: what colleges interest your child and what do those colleges want to see? Gaining a sense of that will go a long way toward putting your son or daughter on the right path for admission success.

Secondly, it’s important to recognize that curriculums differ from high school to high school. While there are 38 Advanced Placement (AP) subjects developed by the College Board (the same folks who make SAT tests), not all are likely to be offered by any one high school; AP course offerings differ across schools and grades. Virtually all high schools offer advanced level (i.e., honors) courses in the college-critical subjects—English, science, math, social sciences, and foreign language—to help prepare students for the next step up in higher learning. 

What’s most important is for students to know and “play” to their strengths and pace themselves in a way that allows them to be well-rounded. Great grades alone do not make for the best student resume. Participating in activities like community service, internships, sports, and clubs help differentiate your son or daughter from the crowd and help the college get a fuller picture of who his or she is.

That said, freshman and sophomore years should be the time they dip their toes in challenging academic waters. Students should be working closely with school guidance counselors to identify courses that complement and build the individual’s strengths—in the subject areas that matter to the prospective college(s). Students should push themselves only as far as it takes to develop good habits and allow time to pursue meaningful outside interests.

Junior year is the year they need to really turn up the academic heat. This is the year that colleges want to see that they are upping their game in preparation for the rigors of college level work. By Junior year, your son or daughter should be working closely with a guidance counselor to predict academic performance. In most cases, getting a B in an AP class means more on a college transcript than getting an A in a standard class. However, that doesn’t mean taking every AP class the high school offers. Encourage your child to choose wisely and with an eye to presenting himself or herself in the best all-around light.

Senior year counts, too. While most colleges are satisfied with obtaining a senior year academic schedule, some ask for final grades. Just like with high school sports, how strongly the student finishes makes all the difference in the outcome of the game—and who recruits who.

Bottom line, where academics are concerned, colleges want to see that the admission candidate is participating in the mix of outside activities and taking the level of courses that will help the student be successful in their world. It’s a great world. All kids have to do is believe in themselves and give it their best effort. True for all of life.