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Should my teen take four years of a foreign language?

By Kimberly Stezala, Consulting Educator

Question:

Should my child take four years of a foreign language in high school? Her school only offers three years of Latin, the language she wants to study, but I don't want her to sabotage her chances of getting into a good college by not taking four years of a language if that's now the standard that most colleges expect.

Answer:

You are correct that most competitive colleges are looking for applicants with four years of foreign language, in the same language, and, yes, students should take four years if possible. What parents should know is that colleges understand different preparation levels and inconsistencies in class offerings throughout the middle school and high school experience.

Perhaps in addition to Latin, your daughter could take one year of another language to meet the four-year criteria if albeit in two languages. Another thing to consider is that maybe your daughter's school offers three years of Latin now, but it could change class offerings in the future.

Stony Brook University's assistant director of admissions, Chris D'Orso, offers this input, "I don't think that we'd ever reject a student's application based solely on not meeting the language requirement, as we know that there are just too many variables at play when it comes to different state school systems and the varying requirements around the country."

How foreign language preparation is interpreted by admissions representatives depends on the college, your daughter's career goals or intended major, and the larger context of her college preparation. It depends also on how well she does in her chosen language. If she makes this choice and earns a 2.0 grade point average in Latin, for three years, it will certainly be viewed less favorably than if her passion is proven by earning A's.

Far from "sabotaging" her chances, your daughter's selection of Latin as her foreign language might end up being a unique favorable characteristic among the applicant pool - if she also explains why or how her choices were limited. College admissions professionals look at applicants holistically and they simply need to know what happened. According to Betsy F. Woolf, a college and graduate school admissions consultant in New York, "Admissions people know that there are lots of reasons why there are differences from the norm in applications. What they don't want to do is guess as to what's going on."

So don't leave people guessing. On applications, make sure your daughter explains the situation and incorporates all of the reasons why she is still a great candidate for admissions.

College admissions standards are in a state of flux right now and even something as sacred as the SAT is being questioned and debated by selective colleges as part of the application process. While your foreign language question focuses on the "norm," please realize that the "norm," and how it is interpreted, can vary.


Kimberly Stezala has extensive experience in the college prep field and is a consultant to education, nonprofit and partnership groups. She is also the author of Scholarships 101: The Real-World Guide to Getting Cash for College and founder of www.scholarshipstreet.com.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

08/30/2010:
"Haven't found much on web concerning this issue, but some protest is beginning in Texas and Kentucky. these states are requiring a second language at the elementary school level, which I believe to be a very progressive and great move forward in our educational system. However, these two states not only are requiring a second language, but dictate that it must be Spanish. I believe this to be an outrage, and can not understand how any state has gotten away with this. A language yes, but there must be choices. I would certainly never encourage my child to study Spanish over some other language that most certainly will be more rewarding in this new and rapidly shrinking world. Spanish mandatory, that is an abomination to my common sense, and helps no one except the Hispanics, and it sounds like continued expansion of our governments agenda."
07/19/2010:
"Latin is an ideal language as a basis for learning other languages, as well as a medical, academic and legal careers. The student is VERY lucky she has this option! Encourage her participation! It is not offered by many public schools and could be a real differentiator for admission over the usual modern languages. You might consider getting her an undergraduate tutor from a local college or university who can enhance her experience. Catholic institutions, and 'Little Ivy League' especially have these programs."
10/19/2009:
"I can see your point of wiew...it makes me sceptical. I deeply believe though that learning a foreign language 'sharpens' a kid's brain more than anything, even if the child will never speak the foreign language. Vania Kouveli (teacher, PhD in Greek Philosophy)"
06/20/2008:
"What schools in Huntsville give the best scholarships? My daughter has worked very hard in the academic field, and I want her to be rewarded for it."
06/20/2008:
"My daughter is in the same boat as this girl. She took Latin in 9th grade, and will now continue through Northwestern's Gifted Learning Links online. She will take 3 years of Latin plus AP Latin (not sure which one she will chose; there are 2 to choose from). She is taking Ancient Greek I this summer from the same program and LOVING IT. She can take 2 years of this through NU. She wants to major in the Classics or philosophy...or who knows what, but I have told her that these unusual language classes, and her high aptitude for them will set her apart. So, if the student is motivated and wants to learn Latin for a reason, as the article stated, then go for it. "
06/20/2008:
"When I attended high school back in the dark ages we were told that we needed 3 years of Latin if we hoped to succeed in college. I didn't understand why, but I dutifully did what I was told. After graduation and a brief stab at at a job I joined the Army for 3 years and was sent to Heidelberg, Germany. (A great learning experience). I must admit I wasn't a very good soldier, doing just enough to get by, but I took advantage of the 30 days of 'leave' each year that I was in Europe to travel to Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and I absorbed all the culture available to me. When I was about to leave for home they offered to send me to Russian Language school in exchange for a 2 year tour of re-enlistment. I foolishly declined. After my discharge I attended the University of Chicago, (a great school). This is when the Latin I took in high school proved to be valuable, In fact I believe the 3 most useful courses I took in preparation for college were Latin, Typing, and Logic (whic! h I took in my first semester of college."
06/20/2008:
"One other option for getting the fourth year of Latin or any other language is to add home schooling to the record. Take a home school course in that one subject. Another advantage is that the course could be taken over a summer. Yet another advantage is that the 'home' school course in Latin or Italian could be taken while touring Italy. That would look good on a university application. Best of luck. :-) (Author is a polyglot with seven languages under his belt.)"
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