This question is asked frequently by students (and sometimes by well-intentioned parents) as they embark upon that college search process. The answer is pretty simple for HMC: take as many hard courses in English (yes, English!) and math and natural science as is possible and reasonable. More specifically, we hope to see high levels of course work in Chemistry and Physics, English, and Calculus.
What do I mean by “as is possible”? It turns out that a lot of schools have had to cut their budgets. Sometimes this comes at the expense of the more rigorous courses (like International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP)). Even if the course is offered, the AP Physics course might be offered at a time that presents a scheduling conflict. If this is the case, and since we would not know about it from our distant perspective, it may be wise for applicants to disclose this in the application (and ask the counselor to note it in the School Report). In this way we can be more understanding of the choices that had to be made.
What do I mean by “as is reasonable”? It turns out that you only have one chance to experience high school, and you should not be a slave to your academics to the detriment of your life outside of class. Those students whose lists of activities drop off significantly in order to focus on academics run the risk of seeming fairly one-dimensional and, frankly, boring. While we are a high powered academic institution, we are also a residential community and we want to be confident that the students we select will make a contribution to non-academic life. On the other hand, some students feel they have been poorly advised and are not tracked into the proper sequence of courses that would place into Calculus or some other rigorous course.
The next question we need to consider, however, is the context of your environment. Some schools offer more advanced courses than others. Some schools limit students to taking a maximum number of APs each year, while others are completely open. Some operate on a block system so that students can take more courses in one year than would be the case in a more traditional semester plan. Some schools insist that if you join the band, that you must take the class (or two or even three) in order to be a member of an elite squad. The same requirement might apply to student leadership (student government) that you must take the class to serve an elected position. Some schools simply offer more class periods in a day than others. As a result, we don’t employ one policy that fits all scenarios. That is also why it is so helpful for us to see a school profile when we review applications.
What about the number of courses? Most admission people think in terms of the quality of the course, but also the number of “solid” or “major” courses taken. (In this case, major does not refer to what you intend to study in college.) Solids are considered the five basic food-groups of your academic program: English; Mathematics; natural science; foreign languages; and social science.
When I see a transcript, I am not very concerned about the GPA or rank as I am the entire transcript. I literally count how many solid courses are taken each term and note which ones are tagged as honors or AP or IB or whatever. Generally, we expect 5 solids each term. Some students who are especially ambitious may take 6 or 7, at least in the USA. (The most I recall seeing in one term was for a Korean citizen who had no time to do anything in his life but study. He took 17 courses and perhaps a lot of aspirin!)
Students who take 4 solid courses consistently or whose curriculum counts drop to 3 even in one term take a big chance with us. They are competing with students who simply have taken more courses and can make a stronger argument for being prepared for a rigorous academic program like ours. Which one has better preparation: the person who has taken 6 solids per term (18 courses over 10-12 grades) or the person with 4 solids per year (ending with a total of 12)? The first person has a whole year’s worth of courses beyond the second!
Last, but not least: which is better AP or IB? I am convinced that AP works best for some students and IB for others. Both are very challenging, both have tremendous merit, but they approach studies differently. There tends to be more writing required in IB, which is always a help for college, but AP students are required to write in their courses, too. In its most common and expected form, IB is all or nothing: 6 or 7 courses per year in junior and senior years, whereas one can choose AP courses one by one. The IB has the additional requirement of an Extended Essay (EE) and a very interesting class called “Theory of Knowledge” (TOK) that explores the question: how do we know what we think we know? Someone who loves ideas and discussion should enjoy this TOK course. Someone who likes clearly defined answers might not. The second person, no less intellectual, might opt for AP. Students that have a choice between the two would be wise to think of how they learn, what they enjoy learning, and how they manage a heavy course load.
So my generic advice is: BE YOU. Do as much as you can while being as successful as you can. Don’t choose courses just to please your parents or an admission officer, but because you like to learn. Then go for it! Please don’t entomb yourself in hard courses and then find your grades dropping. Save time to have a life with friends and activities that are meaningful to you. You don’t get a second shot at high school, so work hard and try to enjoy it. As one of my best friends says: “if we are not having fun, what’s the point?”