College admissions can seem like a giant puzzle, especially if you’re hoping to attend an Ivy League or other extremely selective school. Planning your high school schedule carefully is definitely important, but these schools' expectations aren’t as inflexible as you might think they are.
In this article, I’ll provide a concise overview of what Ivy League admission requirements are for high school transcripts and give you some tips on how to map out your classes so you have the best shot at being accepted.
What Are Ivy League Schools Looking For in Your Transcript?
Ivy League schools want to see students who have consistently challenged themselves throughout high school by taking progressively more advanced courses and earning high grades.
Here are a few examples of Ivy League admission requirements from the school websites so you can see exactly what they say about their expectations for applicants' transcripts. All bold emphasis is mine.
“It is very important that we see a high level (or an improving degree) of rigor and success throughout your high school years.”
“When the admissions committee looks at your transcript, it will not focus on whether you have taken any specific course. It will be far more interested to see that you have challenged yourself with difficult coursework and have done well.”
“We hope to see that a student is challenging herself or himself with a rigorous course load.”
“The admissions process at Columbia is a 'holistic' one, taking many factors into careful consideration. We do not rely on standardized testing and grades alone and instead look at all parts of every application to help inform our judgment.”
- 4 years of English
- 4 years of mathematics (often through calculus, if available)
- 4 years of social science
- 4 years of laboratory science
- 4 years of a foreign language”
“Here’s what we want to know:
- Given the courses that your school offers, have you enrolled in a challenging curriculum?
- Have you had academic success that suggests that you'll thrive in the classroom at Dartmouth?
If we answer YES to these two questions, then we look deeper into your application to better understand your particular areas of academic strength and weakness, subjects that interest you most, and your motivation for learning.”
Based on these statements, you can expect a comprehensive review of your application by admissions officers at Ivy League schools, with an eye toward overall course rigor combined with impressive grades.
If you’re taking the most challenging courses available at your high school and earning high grades, you’re on your way to a strong application. In the next section, I’ll talk more specifically about which classes you should take if you’re hoping to attend an Ivy League school.
Start strong and stay on track. Keep running in circles until you realize that you have homework to do and this was just a metaphor.
Which Classes Should You Actually Take?
If you want to get into an Ivy League school, you’ll need to take the highest level classes that are available to you (usually Honors and AP courses) in most subjects. These schools expect you to challenge yourself more and more throughout high school and earn high grades up through your senior year.
That being said, you don’t have to go crazy with a million APs senior year to show how much you’ve grown. If you have a strong interest in math and science, for example, and aren't such a fan of English and foreign languages, you might be able to get by without taking the most difficult classes in your weaker subject areas.
As long as you show that you are an extremely strong student in your specific area of interest (and have relevant extracurricular achievements to back it up), you will have a solid chance at Ivy League colleges.
We saw in the section above that the majority of Dartmouth applicants have taken four classes in each core subject, which isn't too out of the ordinary. To give an even less demanding example of curriculum requirements for applicants, Princeton expects students to take four years of math (with calculus for students interested in engineering), English, and foreign language, and at least two years each of history and lab science. This is a perfectly reasonable expectation for almost any high school student.
The mentality of “the more classes the better” can be very harmful. Don't overload yourself with extra courses in which you could end up dropping the ball. A failing grade is not something you want on your transcript, no matter how many hard classes you take!
If you’re looking to fill out your schedule beyond the core curriculum, decide which subject areas are of special interest to you, and then take the most challenging classes or electives available in those areas.
Don't put yourself in a situation in which you're doing the academic equivalent of one-handed no-legged (?) pushups and trying desperately not to fumble.
I'll give you a sample of what your core course record might look like in high school if you’re hoping to attend an Ivy League school. This isn't the be-all and end-all of schedules, so don't feel as though you have to copy it. It's just helpful to see everything laid out:
- Honors French 2
- Honors Geometry
- Honors English
- Honors World History
- Honors Science and Engineering
- Honors French 3
- Honors Algebra 2
- Honors English
- AP US History
- AP Biology
- Honors French 4
- Honors Pre-Calculus
- Honors English
- AP Government
- AP Chemistry
I modeled this loosely after my own high school schedule (which I can verify did get me into Dartmouth), and as you can see, it’s not an insane number of classes.
Keep in mind that this is just a sample. Your school might offer more or fewer AP classes, or structure course tracks differently. For example, some schools have AP World History or Economics classes, which were not an option at my high school. Other schools might offer only a few AP classes or none at all, in which case you'd just take all Honors classes (or IB classes, if that’s an option). Colleges are aware of these limitations and will take them into account when reviewing your application.
If you're an advanced student, you might finish the course track at your high school for a subject before your senior year. This happens especially with math and language classes. If you're done with AP Calculus after your sophomore or junior year, don't worry about being penalized if you decide not to take another math class in high school; you've already reached the level in math that Ivy League schools expect from most students. In this case, you might double up on science classes or classes in other academic areas that interest you during your last one or two years of high school.
Try to maintain a relatively even balance of courses in different core subject areas as a baseline, while also taking care to emphasize your strengths.
Not too interested in languages but love social studies classes? Even if you haven't finished the entire language course track, you can make the choice to take two social studies classes and lose the language. This shouldn’t hurt your chances as long as you’ve taken a language for three years already and are enrolled in the most challenging social studies classes.
Make your passions apparent so your transcript gives colleges a sense of the unique qualities you’ll bring to the school.
If you don't like studying languages, this might as well say "Welcome ... to your nightmares (a sus pesadillas)!"
What’s More Important: Good Grades or Course Difficulty?
Overall, selective colleges value a rigorous course load over perfect grades. An Ivy League school might accept a student who had all As and one or two Bs in the highest-level classes, but it probably wouldn’t accept a student who had flawless grades in mid- or low-level classes.
These schools are looking for students who are up for an intellectual challenge and genuinely enjoy learning. If you’re in lower-level classes and earning straight As, you might not be challenging yourself enough. Taking the easy route to a good grade won't win you any points on your application.
On the flip side, be careful about enrolling in a course schedule that's too intense for you. If your schedule becomes overwhelming, you might end up tanking your GPA (and your mental health!).
It’s a delicate balance to strike between earning high grades and taking hard classes. Just know that you don’t have to take eight AP classes your senior year to get into an Ivy League school.
If your schedule gets too intense, your hair could start turning gray, and in severe cases you might even be driven to purchase shutter shades.
How Should You Go About Actually Choosing Your Classes?
If you're the planning type (which you probably are since you're reading this article), you can map out your entire high school schedule early on in your freshman year. Structure your schedule so that you end up taking courses that are relevant to your strengths as a student while also fulfilling core curricular requirements. Your school should have a course directory that you can look through for this purpose.
Leave some spots in your schedule open to more than one option in case your goals change as you progress through high school. For example, if you're interested in both AP Psychology and AP Government but only have room for one, you can give yourself the option to pick between them later on.
It's also smart to consult with your guidance counselor in the process of choosing which classes you'll take. If you have a specific college in mind, look at the application requirements to verify you'll fulfill them. Since your guidance counselor will know how other students with certain course schedules fared in the college application process, he or she might be able to give you advice based on the experiences of past students who were admitted to the school that interests you.
Talking to your guidance counselor can be helpful, but make sure they're always holding an official-looking folder. That's the only way you know you can trust them. Stock photos never lie.
What Else Should You Do If You Hope to Attend an Ivy League School?
Apart from your grades and course schedule, your test scores will also be important to these colleges.
On the SAT, you should score above 1500 for a solid chance of admission. On the ACT, you should score at least 33. Expectations might even be a bit higher depending on which Ivy League school you're targeting.
If you want a good chance of attending one of these schools, especially the most selective Ivies, you'll also need to develop your application apart from test scores and grades.
If you can accomplish something in high school that goes above and beyond what most students have done, you'll stand out from the crowd. This could be anything from winning an artistic competition to designing an app to making a breakthrough scientific discovery. These are just random suggestions, and everyone is different. But if you show that you're passionate about something and capable of acting on that passion to produce something unique, you'll have a leg up on the competition.
For more details, read our comprehensive guide on how to get into an Ivy League school!
Become one with the yellow flower.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.