• How to strengthen your applications and earn college credit.
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You’ve been in high school for two, maybe three, years now, and you’ve determined that yes, you do in fact want to go to college. Now you’re being told by teachers, upperclassmen, your parents, etc. that your junior and senior years are the most important times for college prep and every single thing you do during these years will make or break your college career. You basically need to eat, sleep, and breathe college, but you don’t even know where to start besides grinding to try to get straight As. First of all, yikes, and secondly, there is a much wider array of productive things you can do to get ready for application season besides grinding for a 4.0. 

The basics 

Regardless of what kind of school you’re looking to go to, there are some things that are going to help you while applying to college no matter what.

  • GPA: First and foremost, grades are not everything! But, for better or for worse, admissions counselors do pay close attention to them, so you’ll want to try your best to maintain or boost your grades. However, you don’t need a perfect 4.0; in fact, it may not be enough sometimes. Grades alone won’t carry an application, so supplement it with …
  • Extracurricular activities: Colleges are looking for well-rounded students. Being involved with extracurricular activities shows that you have a variety of interests and skills and are willing to take on responsibilities of your own accord.
  • Build a résumé: Look for employment and volunteer opportunities while in high school. Both of these demonstrate your responsibility and speak to even more skill sets that you have. 
  • Practice your interview skills: Sometimes an interview will be a part of the admissions process. If you’ve followed the previous suggestion and gotten a job, then you’ll have already been exposed to that. But it’s easy to get rusty, so practice, and be prepared.
  • Take preparing for the SAT and ACT seriously: The PSAT isn’t just for generating forbidden memes; it really does prepare you for the actual exam. You’ll get a feel for the kinds of questions you’ll be asked, and based on that, as well as your test-taking skills in general, you’ll know how to prepare. There’s a wide array of tools at your disposal, such as online practice tests, preparation handbooks, and even classes dedicated to preparing for the exam.
  • Explore your interests: Use clubs or your elective slots to explore classes and get a feel for disciplines that might interest you in the future. 
Tailoring your preparation: Advanced classes

To all the overachievers out there, you probably already have plans to take the hardest classes available to you, which is great—as long as you (1) are doing it because you want the challenge and (2) aren’t overextending yourself. But when you start signing up for advanced classes, you might notice that you have a couple options: advanced placement (AP) or dual enrollment (a.k.a. dual credit). So what’s the difference, and how do you know which one is right for you?

AP

  • What it is: AP classes were developed by the College Board as a means to prepare high-school students for college-level courses.
  • Who teaches them: AP classes are taught by high-school teachers.
  • How they’re taught: AP courses are structured around a cumulative exam students pay for and take at the end of the year in order to get college credit.
  • Prerequisites: You’ll often have to take pre-AP classes in order to be eligible for AP classes. These are slightly more coursework heavy and faster paced than normal high-school courses, but they are often a more “slowed-down” version of AP (e.g., in pre-AP calculus, you cover the equivalent of one college semester in a year, while in AP, the pacing will be the same as a college course).
  • How credit is awarded: Credit is awarded based on your AP exam score. The test is scored on a scale of 1–5, with 5 being the highest. While a 3 is considered passing, most colleges and universities may only accept a 4 or 5. You must also pass the class to obtain high-school credit as well. 
  • Who should take it: If you’re certain that you’re going to be attending an out-of-state university, AP is generally the safer choice because AP credits are accepted nationally.
  • The drawbacks: AP classes are not for the faint of heart. They’re very fast paced and have an exponentially larger workload. You’re also not guaranteed to receive college credit if you don’t get a certain score on the exam. The curriculum is also more rigid because the classes have to prepare you for the exam. 
  • The upside: If you’re up for the challenge, AP can sometimes even over prepare you for college. And the credit is more widely applicable.

Dual credit/dual enrollment

  • What it is: Your high school has partnered with a college or university to offer qualifying students the ability to take entry-level college courses for both college and high-school credits. 
  • Who teaches them: College professors teach dual-credit courses.
  • How they’re taught: Dual-credit classes are, for all intents and purposes, college courses. Their structure and the work you’ll be doing are at the professor’s discretion, so the classes you take could be anywhere from exam based, project based, paper based, or any combination of those elements.
  • Prerequisites: The prerequisites for dual enrollment can depend on both your state and your school. They can include a certain minimum GPA, taking an entrance exam through the partnered secondary school, grade level, and written recommendation. You may also have to pay to enroll, but again, that depends on your school or your state. 
  • How credit is awarded: You only need to pass the class in order to receive both high-school and college credit.
  • Who should take it: If you’re certain you’re going to school in state or the schools you’re considering will accept transfer credit from the partnered school, you should consider dual enrollment.
  • The drawbacks: Depending on your school, dual-credit courses may not be weighted equally and can potentially hurt your GPA. Also, credits from dual enrollment don’t transfer as widely as AP credits.
  • The upside: They are genuine college classes and truer to the college experience both in terms of structure and student accountability. You’re totally responsible for your grades, and they legally cannot be disclosed to your parents without your permission. Obtaining credit is also easier because it doesn’t hinge on a single exam. 

An important thing to note is that you are not married to taking either AP or dual credit. If you want to maximize your potential college credits, taking a combination of these courses is a great way to do so. For example, are you a whiz at math tests, but English exams are the bane of your existence? Maybe an AP math course and a dual-credit English course is the way to go. It’s all about knowing how you perform in certain subjects and evaluation environments. 

Do what feels right

Junior and senior year of high school can be incredibly stressful and even kind of scary, especially when it feels like you have a million things to do if you even want to have hope of going to college. There is no one right way to prepare for college. Everyone has different plans for the future and different ideas for how they’re going to get there. And remember: not everything has to get done all at once, and it’s OK to say no to some things. You don’t have to take AP and/or dual-credit everything, have a job, be in three clubs, and volunteer on the weekends. One of the most important things you can do to prepare for college is to learn not to overextend yourself and appreciate all the hard work you are capable of.