Counselor: Nice to know you. How can I help?
Concerned High School Junior: Should I sign up for calculus next year or take statistics?
Counselor: Are you interested in science or technology fields, in which case you might want to take calculus, or do you think you might end up studying a discipline in which a background in statistics would be useful? Many of the behavioral sciences…
CHSJ (interrupting): Which will look better for college? Should I take calculus or statistics?
Counselor: Which colleges ae you considering? What is important to you? What are your passions outside the classroom? Where do you see yourself in five years? Many students make good decisions based on…
CHSJ (interrupting): What difference does it make? Who cares? I want to go to a good college!
Counselor: A good college for you or a good college for someone else? Some students consider…
CHSJ (interrupting): What are you talking about? That doesn’t make any sense! There are good colleges and bad colleges! There are rankings! Why would I go to a college that is ranked seventh when I could go to a college that is ranked sixth?
Counselor: The rankings sell magazines and have nothing to do with whether a student is happy or successful at college. Most educators…
CHSJ (interrupting): I’m never going to get into any college anywhere! I will end up drinking wine in the gutter! The sky is falling! We’re all going to die! It’s the end of the world! Why won’t you just tell me which math course to take? Calculus or statistics? Do you even know anything about your job? You are a terrible counselor!
To be fair, students who take calculus in their senior year do better in the admissions lottery than do students who take pre-algebra in 12th grade. Students who have five years of foreign language are admitted to selective colleges more often than students who don’t take a foreign language. And students who have AP science courses get in over kids who have taken a course called—in Gary Trudeau’s immortal phrase—“Our Friend the Beaver.”
But conversing endlessly about “moving the needle” can bring students to the intersection of Fixation Avenue and Gloom Street. Will taking calculus rather than statistics move the needle at my preferred highly selective college? Will being vice president of the Future Farmers of American Club make a difference? Should the student join the debate team? Will raising $400 rather than $300 at a bake sale make a difference?
Taking the most rigorous academic courses your high school has to offer is a good plan. Obsessing about eight AP courses rather than seven may do more harm than good, because—stop me if you’ve already figured this out—what difference could one more advanced course possibly make? “We only admit students who have eight AP courses, we never accept a student with only seven.” Words no admissions counselor ever spoke.
The reality is that the needle moves imperceptibly if at all based on these choices. Your odds go from one in 20 up to one in 19. And while admissions decisions are admittedly binary—students are admitted or they're not—these little changes are next to meaningless.
What used to be a five-minute conversation about course selection—“yeah, I’ll take statistics, the classroom is closer to the cafeteria and I have some good friends who will be in that class”—has morphed into a tedious calculation about subsequent admissibility. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Are there ANY examples of what does indeed move the needle? Sure. If a 5’ 4”, 130-pound young woman were to gain a hundred pounds, grow 12 inches, change her gender, and develop a predilection for running into people and knocking them over, she would improve her chances of being admitted to any number of the highly selective colleges in need of an outside linebacker. Otherwise, the reality is that whereas a dromedary may have suffered a grievous spinal injury resulting from one additional piece of chaff, this student’s decision isn’t going to come down to one course selection one year.
Note that nowhere in this essay is anyone talking about courses in which the student is interested. Passion isn't mentioned either nor any insight into what a student might want to do after college.
Why so much anxiety? I'll take a guess, Alex. Because being the best you can be is one thing. But being somebody else entirely is asking too much.