Article from www.thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com, May 13, 2013

We’ve heard it time and again: rigor is one of the most important aspects of a college student’s application. But how exactly does a student present an awe-inspiring college application — one replete with challenging classes and impressive activities — without compromising his or her performance in those areas?

As high school students select their classes for next year, should they consider taking less advanced courses, in an effort to earn high grades?

I thought it might be helpful to hear directly from admissions officers on the matter. I’ve asked Jeff Rickey, the vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., to answer some questions about selecting appropriate classes in high school.

In this edited version of our Q. and A., Mr. Rickey discusses what admissions officers look for when reviewing a student’s transcript, how students should balance rigorous classes and extracurricular activities, and whether it’s better to have an A in an honors class or a B in an Advanced Placement class.

Q.
How significant is a student’s transcript during the college admissions process?

A.
A student’s transcript is very significant. Among other things, it shows the two most important elements that determine whether a student is academically eligible for the college to which he or she is applying: the level of rigor in the school’s curriculum and the student’s performance within the context of that curriculum.

Holy Cross student card and link An interactive explanation of how Holy Cross parses an applicant’s transcript information.
Q.
What do admissions officers evaluate when they review a student’s transcript?

A.
Selective institutions that perform a holistic review will first compare the courses the student has taken with the courses offered at the school. If A.P. courses are offered, we would expect to see A.P. courses on the transcript. If honors courses are the highest level, then we would expect to see them.

Next, we will consider grades in the academic courses over the arc of the years, but also each year separately. That allows us to see performance over time and determine any trends. A downward trend is troubling when the evaluation is conducted. An upward trend tells another story.

Finally, we will look for electives, which give us other hints about the student’s interests and may validate other parts of the student’s application.

Q.
Should an academically capable student take the most challenging classes available if he or she is not interested in the subject?

A.
Absolutely. The teacher of the class is likely to be passionate about the subject, so the student’s interest may grow.

Academically capable students are usually the most curious, so taking a course in which they might not initially be interested is a good indicator of both. Students should let their curiosity overcome their hesitation.

Q.
How should a student strike a balance between taking rigorous classes and having meaningful involvement in extracurricular activities?

“We are not fans of students who pad their list of activities in their junior and senior years to look more engaged.”
— Jeff Rickey

A.
Strong time-management skills allow the two to coexist. A long-term commitment and deep involvement in a few extracurricular activities results in those activities becoming a regular part of daily planning — just like the course schedule — making it easier for the student to manage.

We admissions officers are fans of students with deep involvement in a few activities. We are not fans of students who pad their list of activities in their junior and senior years to look more engaged.

Q.
Which is better: taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses or taking actual college courses (e.g., local college classes, dual enrollment programs, or massive open online courses)?

A.
One isn’t necessarily preferable over the other. What is important is for the student to take the courses that are best for him or her. Each of these options challenges the student beyond the general curriculum. Challenge of any kind is good.

Q.
Which is better: an A in an honors class or a B in an Advanced Placement class?

A.
As we admissions officers say when we are asked this question, “An A in an Advanced Placement class!” But, seriously, the student should take the most challenging course that is best for him or her. The extra challenge of the A.P. course may prepare the student better for the challenge of college courses.