Let’s begin with a few questions about your academic interests. Take time to reflect and write your responses:

  • Which subjects in school do you like studying the most?
  • Do you know which subject(s) you would like to take up in college? Are you studying/will you be able to study these subjects in school?
  • Is your school course load currently manageable? Can it be more challenging?
  • Do you have academic or intellectual interests that go beyond your school curriculum? Have you explored opportunities to pursue these interests?
  • Have you sought advice from your school counselor or teachers regarding the best combination of classes for you?

The first step in building a strong college profile begins with your academic record. Your classes at your high school must challenge you, and admissions officers understand that through the classes. If you’re following an Indian curriculum, be it the ISCE or CBSE, US colleges generally view the Science streams offered by these boards as the more competitive combination of classes. Opting for the Commerce or the Humanities/Arts stream is not necessarily a drawback, but not having mathematics on your class reports will put you in less advantageous position compared to other applicants. Even if you’re enrolled in international curricula like the IB, consider taking the diploma program and choose your higher-level subjects wisely. Additionally, talk to your counselor to find out what might be the best combination of classes available to you that match your interests and also demonstrate academic rigor. 

9th and 10th grade considerations:

If you’re in your 9th grade and considering how your class selection will impact your college applications down the line, well done on starting early! 

For those of you enrolled in CBSE curriculum, your subjects are mostly decided by the board, and they include mathematics and natural sciences, so you needn’t be worried about subject selection. Your two optional subjects can be anything you’re interested in and they will not necessarily influence your academic record later on in any significant anyway. At this point, strong performance in your Grade 9 and 10 exams matter most.

For those enrolled in the ICSE curriculum in the 9th grade, your most important choice is to select either the Science Stream or the Commerce Stream, as most schools – while offering both – will restrict classes for students to one or the other. This choice will come into play if you plan to continue with this board for your 11th and 12th grades (junior and senior year respectively), where you will not be able to make a switch from the Commerce stream to the Science stream because the latter requires a science background as a prerequisite. Switching to Commerce or Humanities from Science is, of course, not a problem. If you are going to stick with the ISCE board throughout high school, and if you want to keep most of your options open, it’s prudent to opt for Science in 9th grade itself. 

Similarly, if you think you may change your board to IBDP or the A Levels, it’s still a good idea to take Science. While neither board necessarily requires prerequisites for you to take Science subjects in 11th and 12th grade (again, check with your counselor!), having a science background may help you perform better in these subjects.  Again, science subjects in both curricula include a foundational learning, so you can take these subjects even without having taken science in your 9th and 10th grades, but it is simply wiser to build that background. That said, if you’re unable to keep up with the course load and are confident that the sciences are not where your interests lie, stick to the Commerce stream. You can always find other ways to make your academic background more competitive (more on that soon). Whichever way you go, make sure to excel those ISCE Grade 10 board examinations; they are an extremely important indicator of academic performance in general.

The same logic applies if you’re currently enrolled in GCSE and IGCSE curricular. You will probably go ahead with either the A levels or the IBDP. Check with your counselor to see if your school recommends taking certain subjects to keep your options open during junior or senior year.

11th and 12th grade considerations:

Now’s the time to buckle up and make your academic record as strong as possible! At this point, you may have a better idea of which subjects interest you and what you might take up in college. The first thing to do is talk to your counselor, express you interest in studying abroad, explain your academic interests and figure out how you can make the most of the next two years by picking the right subjects.

If you’re enrolled in either the ICSE or the CBSE board, your school will mostly ask you to select a stream. Again, when unsure, go with Science. Not only will taking up Science prepare you for more majors later on, the stream is also seen as the most rigorous and challenging of the lot, which it is! That said, you must be willing to put in the effort to do well in the science subjects; an average or poor performance in these subjects will not give you an edge over someone with stellar scores in the Commerce or Humanities Stream. Some schools offer the flexibility to take subjects from across all three streams. Speak to your counselor and clarify your interests. Of the lot, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics are viewed as the most challenging subjects. Tailor your interests and your sense of your own aptitude to come up with the best combination possible. Remember, ultimately any combination will require you to work hard to build a competitive academic record.

Similarly, if you’re doing the IBDP or the A Levels, talk to your counselor to understand which combination will cater best to your academic ambitions. If you’re enrolled in the IBDP, and want to pursue engineering, the ideal subject combination looks something like this:

Higher Level: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry/Computer Science
Standard Level: English, a Group 2 subject, a Group 3 subject

Of course, not all successful engineering profiles necessarily have this combination, but you need to know your competition and what makes a competitive academic record in order to be able to make up for any shortcomings in your own.

Similarly, an Economics aspirant should strongly consider taking Mathematics HL and Economics HL. Prospective psychology majors should consider taking Psychology HL and Biology HL. Apart from Mathematics and the Experimental Sciences in HL, another subject that’s considered challenging is History HL.

At this point I should clarify that it’s good to know which courses are challenging, but it’s not a great idea to sign up for all of them, especially if you don’t find yourself very passionate about these subjects. If you are clear on what interests you, that should be your guiding principle during subject selection. At the same time, knowing which classes are tougher is good to help you create an overall balance to your academic profile. 

As mentioned earlier, there are other ways to ensure you make up for shortcomings in your academic profile, if any. If you’re going through one of the Indian board systems, the AP is a good place to start! Very few schools offer classes in AP, but most students are able to take the exam through self-study, for which there are fortunately a lot of free online resources!  Khan Academy is a great resource, with free tutorials on every subject. Understanding which AP classes are best for you will also require some studying, research and—dare I say it again—a chat with your school counselor and teachers.

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Building your college profile begins with your academic record. By following these tips and talking with your counselors, and teachers, you can plan your high school years by aiming for the most challenging courses. Admissions officers are knowledgeable about which courses are challenging, and put higher emphasis on honors, AP, IB, and other college-preparatory courses. Keep in mind, you have to do well in these courses, which are demanding on critical thinking skills and study time. By making it a habit to learn, you will develop the skills to succeed and promote your college profile with a competitive academic record. Doing well in these courses will also play a role in teacher recommendation letters, which makes up another important component of your college profile, and will be needed while you organize your applications.

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