Choosing smart electives

College-bound students need to take challenging academic classes each semester, as well as take electives that cultivate their interests, strengths and special talents.

Your high school freshman gets good grades in all her required classes, so she should be able to follow her fancy in choosing electives, right? Not necessarily. Many high schools' minimum requirements are not rigorous enough to satisfy college admission officials, so you'll want to be sure that your child selects a high school course of study that meets college standards.

Freshman year is not too early to meet with a guidance counselor and begin charting your teenager's college preparation course plan.

"Freshmen need to work out their program of study even before they begin high school to ensure they will have room in their schedules to cover all the courses colleges require," says Iris Schrey, a college counselor at William Jones College Prep in Chicago, where 100 percent of the first graduating class is college-bound.

College requirements

Specialty colleges may have specific requirements. Some colleges will consider students who have not necessarily completed the traditional core curriculum but have challenged themselves to the best of their abilities. You and your child can use College Search or purchase the College Handbook to see what specific colleges are looking for. As a general rule, however, students should maintain a well-rounded and challenging schedule.

Striking a balance

Handling four or five academic courses each semester doesn't leave a lot of room for extras. Still, students should pursue a course of studies that will maintain their interest.

"I tell students they need to create a course selection for each year that is going to challenge them and keep them healthy," says Marybeth Kravets, a college consultant for Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Illinois, and a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "Colleges first and foremost look for the core curriculum, but they also like to see breadth and depth in the high school experience," says Kravets.

Electives over and above the core curriculum, such as art, fine art, music, journalism, computer programming or business can provide an interdisciplinary overlap with more traditional courses, creating a richer learning experience, adds Kravets. In fact, research indicates that students who take courses in fine and performing arts often perform better in school and on standardized tests.

Schrey tells her students to follow their passion in pursuing electives. Some schools offer elective courses in journalism or band that correspond with extracurricular activities and reduce the student's after-school time commitment. A fun class can break up a rigorous schedule and help students avoid burn-out.

Beyond what high school offers

If your child's high school doesn't offer the courses she seeks, local colleges or community colleges may. "Taking an economics, philosophy or business course at a local college helps give high school students a taste for what college will be like," says Schrey.

Courses might also be available via the Internet or by correspondence course, but parents should ensure that any course their student enrolls in not only covers the desired topic but provides high-caliber learning. Kravets points out that parents can also play a role in helping to ensure high schools offer quality electives. "Unfortunately, during budget crunch times, electives are often the first to get cut," says Kravets.

Interests and strengths

Some experts advise students to not only follow their interests, but also focus on their strengths when choosing electives. A student who excels in foreign languages could boost her grade point average and class standing by enrolling in a fourth year of French. Advisers also warn students not to stock up on light classes their senior year, because colleges will look for the student's ability to maintain four years of academic course work.

All experts agree that preparing for college takes hard work and dedication. Electives provide your child a chance to show her flair and develop interests and abilities. You can help your child prepare for college by working with the school's guidance counselor to map out not only a challenging core curriculum but also an enriching selection of electives that will maintain her interest and diversify her learning.

Sources:

The College Guide for Parents, Charles J. Shields, College Board, 1994. Preparing Your Child For College, A Resource Book for Parents, 1996-97 Edition, U.S. Department of Education.