Take On a Tough Schedule in Junior Year

Ivy League and other elite institutions favor applicants who have challenged themselves throughout high school by taking advanced courses and earning high grades in them. As a high school student who has recently completed your sophomore year and aspires to attend such a school, you should take on an academically demanding schedule in your junior year; but one that you feel won’t overtax your abilities. Junior year results are the most critical for applicants since they’re the last full year grades available for admissions officials to evaluate. Along with your fall senior grades, they’re the best evidence of your ability to do college-level work.

Don’t look to the admissions material of top-tier institutions for specificity about which courses you should take. The examples below reflect what three Ivy League schools say in their admissions material regarding course selection. Dartmouth is the most specific, but they don’t identify any courses as requirements.


The majority of our successful applicants have taken:

  • 4 years of English
  • 4 years of mathematics (through calculus, if available)
  • 4 years of social science
  • 4 years of laboratory science
  • 4 years of a foreign language

Successful applicants have shown:

  • They have enrolled in a challenging curriculum
  • Their academic success has indicated that they’ll thrive in the classroom at Dartmouth


  • We want to see if a student has challenged herself or himself with a rigorous course load
  • The admissions process at Columbia is ‘holistic’, meaning that it takes many factors into careful consideration, not just coursework and GPA


  • It’s very important for us to see a high level (or an improving degree) of rigor and success throughout the high school years
  • When our admissions office looks at your transcript, we will not focus on whether you have taken any specific course. We will be more interested to see that you have challenged yourself with difficult coursework and have done well.

A major concern in setting the junior year schedule is the question of how many honors and/or Advanced Placement (AP) courses to take. Ideally, a high-achieving student might consider taking1 or 2 AP such classes as a freshman and 2 or 3 as a sophomore. IvySelectnormally recommends taking 3 or 4 AP classes in core subject areas during junior year and 4 or 5 in senior year, but individual schools and circumstances may alter this advice.

The difference between a high school’s honors courses and AP courses varies from school to school. In some cases, honors courses are intended to be for freshmen and sophomores, who then take AP courses in their junior and senior years. The other difference is that students may earn college credits by passing AP exams (depending upon college policies), but can’t earn credits for honors courses however difficult they may be.

You should note that AP classes not only demonstrate your commitment to learning and to challenging yourself academically, they also may affect GPA in a positive way. Regular classes usually weigh an Aas 4.0, but many high schools grant AP classes an additional point. So it’s possible to have a 5.0 GPA score from an AP class. Alternatively, you could receive a grade of B in an AP class and still have a 4.0 GPA.

GPA is the salient metric in college admissions, so you to need to avoid taking so many difficult courses that they may drag down your GPA. Sound judgment is vital in setting the junior year schedule in order to strike a balance between a realistic, aggressive choice of courses and a schedule that over-reaches and puts your GPA at risk. This is a course selection exercise in which the expertise of IvySelect, as an experienced college admissions consulting firm, can provide invaluable assistance to you as a student aspiring to attend an elite college.

There is no ideal junior year academic schedule. IvySelect has guidelines that help you to build a schedule that will strike the desired balance. IvySelect’s general recommendations for your junior year are noted below:

  • Stay Core Focused – Take at least 4 core courses. A schedule with 5 core courses is preferred. Don’t forego more than one core subject area.
  • AP and Honors Classes – If you have taken honors and/or AP courses in sophomore year and done well, then sign up for 3 or 4 AP courses in junior year. AP courses help your cause substantially. They help even more if you prove what you’ve learned through your scores on AP exams.
  • IB Programs – The International Baccalaureate programs are growing in popularity. If you are participating in an IB program, make sure to take the HL courses that demonstrate your interests and abilities.
  • Pursue Interests as Electives – Learn a new subject that interests you or that will be useful, such as Public Speaking or the basics of Information Technology. Do this again in senior year.
  • College Level Classes – Consider taking college courses during a summer semester at one of the elite universities that offer summer programs for high-ability high school students. This will demonstrate two characteristics that admissions officials like to see: your ability to do college work and your dedication to learning.
  • Activities Remain Important – Engage in those extracurricular and non-school activities that contribute to making your case that you will be a valuable addition to a college’s student body and community.

Our recommendations assume that, in following them, you won’t risk sacrificing your GPA. Maintaining high grades is as important as the course schedule itself. You should never give admissions officials reason to doubt either your ongoing dedication to academic rigor or your ability to produce excellent results.

Your personal IvySelect college admissions consultant will advise you through the process of setting up the best junior year schedule for you. We are dedicated to your success in gaining acceptance at the elite colleges of your choice.

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