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College 4 . Us

Plan and act today so you have no regrets tomorrow...

High School Curriculum Planning

Counselors are there to help.  Don't be afraid to approach them.  Many freshmen make the mistake of not talking to counselors until their junior or senior year.  Unfortunately, in most public high schools counselors are too busy trying to prevent students from dropping out.  Therefore, it's better to avoid talking to counselors near the end of the semesters.  Also, many teachers are glad to serve the role of counselors.

Summertime is a great time to get rid of some classes that you don't find too useful and whose content you don't need to retain for testing purposes.  Avoid taking any math classes during the summer.  If you can read very fast, then literature-heavy classes may be OK, but of course these are not probably honors or AP classes.  If you have something worthwhile to do in summer, then perhaps summer classes are actually not your best options.

Math

Math classes should not be taken over the summer, ever!  You want as much time to digest and practice as you can.  This is especially true since there are no SAT subject tests to take right after your summer school.

Geometry is a very unique class in high school.  It teaches problem-solving skills not found in most other classes, and those skills extend way beyond mathematics.  Therefore, spend time learning to do proofs well, and even ask for tougher extra assignments from the teacher if possible.

Statistics is extremely useful in college for most majors, even those that may not seem to be math-related at first.  If your school offers this, you should seriously consider taking it.

Calculus is very different from most other math classes, and many students struggle with it because their teachers fail to explain what calculus really is and what it tries to solve.  If you find that you don't understand why you are doing certain things, ask about it.  Having an understanding of "why" can really help you learn calculus.  Otherwise it becomes a whole bunch of memorization which is not how math should be taught.  Memorization may get you good test scores in class, but you will not do well on the AP Exams.

Choice of Foreign Language

Choose a foreign language with your possible future career goals in mind.  While the foreign language requirement is seen by most high school students as a nuisance, thoughtful choices may have great short-term and long-term benefits.  When asked what skills employers look for, "a second language" was on the top of the list.

If you have a native language to build on and it is offered at your school, naturally you should use it as a foundation.  Although most tests are written, being able to speak a language makes it much easier to learn.  Also your family may be able to offer lots of help if it's a language they use frequently.

What to take depends largely on your short-term and long-term plans, your access to the classes and assistance, and how much work you want to put in.  To help you decide, you need to learn a bit about these languages:

Most high schools offer languages in the following groups:

If you are thinking of doing retail, wholesale, or service-related business in the U.S., Spanish is almost a no-brainer.  In some parts of the U.S., Hispanics are becoming the majority population.  For instance, Spanish-speaking nurses are highly sought after in southern U.S. because there are many Hispanics but not enough Spanish-speaking doctors.  And by most accounts Spanish is rather easy compared to other Romance languages and German.

French, though considered the language of the upper class, is seen by many as somewhat illogical and unnecessarily complicated.  A group of scholars work hard to preserve its ancient practices.  But if you want to be in international politics, speaking French is a sign of sophistication.  (Don't believe me?  Read your passport – it has only English and French.)  Also, want to have a future in Africa?  Then French should definitely be in your consideration.  It's also good for impressing your dates at French restaurants.  You sure don't want to order 5 bowls of soup.

German is more closely related to English than other foreign languages taught in high school nowadays.  After all, English and German share the same roots and both are "Germanic languages."  German is very logical and analytical, but that does not make it easy.  If your school does not offer Latin, some believe German should be the language to study to help you with the SAT verbal test.

Both French and German are major languages in Europe but these people do not appreciate people who clearly know only a little of their languages to be insulting to them.  Interestingly, in Germany many people know English well and would gladly talk to you in English.  In France, they may also know English but would still force you to speak French.  It's a cultural thing...

If you are into art, then Italian should be near the top of your choice.  Enough said.

If you want to be involved with international trade, then knowing Mandarin Chinese could be very helpful.  Chances are many of your suppliers will be Chinese.  But it is also one of the most difficult languages to learn because of the complexity of its written language – it's not based on a system of alphabets like most other languages.  If you do not have a Chinese background, I suggest you learn some basic spoken words just to show friendliness.  Most Chinese businessmen nowadays know some English anyway.

If you go to a private prep school or take classes at a local community college, you may have the opportunity to study Latin or Greek instead.  If Latin is offered, take it even though it has no practical uses in the business world.  It does have major uses in academia, medicine, biology, and even law.  Someone who knows Latin can avoid a lot of memorization associated with anatomy and biology, for example.  Here's a short argument in favor of studying Latin: http://www.memoriapress.com/articles/top-10-reasons-latin .  Latin will likely help you with your SAT verbal preparations because "about half of all English vocabulary comes from Latin and another 20 percent from Greek." (taken from the above website).

A good website to help you decide is http://www.micheloud.com/FXM/la/la/index.htm

I recommend you take as many years of a single language as you can.  Generally you cannot achieve any real proficiency in a language without at least two or three years of intensive studying in high school.  If you have the opportunity to travel abroad (e.g., through a student exchange program or missionary work), you should take it because you can learn a lot more through immersion.  And you learn a lot about their culture that you cannot learn in these language classes.

Advanced Placement Classes & Exams

Contrary to public belief, you do not have to take insane number of AP courses and tests to get into the top schools.  Doing so, and not getting good grades in some of them, is actually a sign of bad planning.  Also certain AP classes are more worthy of pursuit than others (e.g., calculus, sciences, and English).  For most people, taking two per year during the last two or three years of high school is probably the limit.

Which ones to take can be tricky.  Ask those experienced upperclassmen.  If you go to church youth groups or other similar activities, you have easier access to these experts.  In general, since you do not know many of the subjects, you cannot really know which ones you would enjoy or not.  In the absence of other influencing factors, the keys may be 1) the quality of the teachers, 2) the records of students at your school passing the AP exam, and 3) your current long-term career plans.  A good teacher can make a subject very interesting and easier to learn.  A good teacher usually has many students passing the AP exam also.  And since your long-term career plans are likely not settled for years, the quality of the teacher is therefore perhaps the most important concern.

There are some AP courses I would personally avoid: 1) fields that you do not enjoy (but how would you know?!) and 2) history (unless you really enjoy this subject).  The reason for avoiding history is simple: without a least basic foundation in economics, you cannot really understand history.  But you usually don't get economics until your senior year.  This means that your ability to analyze the real causes behind certain historical events is greatly compromised, and you end up with a limited understanding of why things transpired the way they did.

Another major debate is what to take first, chemistry or biology?  If you take geometry during your freshman year, then go after chemistry in your sophomore year.  Chemistry is also especially useful if you want to do AP biology.  Without a basic understanding of chemical reactions, you will have a hard time understanding certain parts of biology (e.g., metabolism, energy conversion, etc.).  If you rely on memorization to get through biology, it's a lot harder and very frustrating.

Here's one rarely known fact: you don't have to take an AP class to take the AP exam.  This is intended to help home-schooled students, but it indirectly helps non-native English speakers (i.e., take the test of your native language), and those who take classes at community colleges where credits may not transfer to the top universities.  However, this means that you should buy some books to help you prepare for the AP exams.  There will be some mismatch between the curriculum and the AP exam.

Conversely, you don't have to take the AP exam either.  If you don't feel confident about scoring a 3 or above, it's better that you don't take the test and have a bad score.

What if My School Doesn’t Offer Many Advanced Courses?

College admission officers know that there are great disparities among high schools, and they do take those considerations into account.  They will ask these question:  Did you make the best use of the resources available to you?  Did you take the limited number of advanced courses at your school?  If you can get to a nearby community college, did you even try to do so?  If not, why not?  If you go beyond what’s expected of a high school student, then it’s a big plus on your application.

Tools to Help You Do Better in School

Nothing can replace studying, but some tools can greatly help you study better and smarter.  One thing I found is a series called “How to Become a Superstar Student” from The Teaching Company.  I watch a small portion of it and it was very informative.  I highly recommend it to any student or concerned parent.

You may want to research a bit about how modern-day tools can help you with your school work.  For instance, when I was in high school, I used outlining tools extensively, and more recently I found mindmapping to be a very good tool to organize ideas and help me see causal relationships.  One such free software is Freemind.

There are many online or offline tutoring services, such as WyzAnt.com and EducateNcare.  These are my advices on getting a tutor:

There are also tons of free educational resources online.  One amazing effort is Khan Academy where thousands of videos and hundreds of exercises to help you learn.  It covers everything from basic addition to organic chemistry to contemporary economic issues.  The self-pace teaching style can really help you catch up with class lessons, get clarification of materials, and practice until you master the lessons.  This may be the educational approach of the future.  But until then, let this be a supplement to your classroom lectures.

Next: Alternatives to High School Classes