Advanced science classes used to be only for future astronauts and biochemists. But now they’re an important part of any student’s transcript. With record numbers of applicants applying for a fixed number of college admissions, universities can be choosier than ever. They analyze high school records for academic rigor, taking a close look at the depth and breadth of a student’s science courses. Harvard tells hopeful applicants: “The natural sciences help to explain, to predict, and sometimes to control, the processes responsible for phenomena that we observe. They constitute a large and growing portion of human knowledge important to everyone. Even if you have no intention of becoming a scientist, an engineer, or a physician, you should study science throughout secondary school.”

How Many Years?

It’s clear from most admissions websites that students today need to load up on science. But how many years are required? Both Duke and the University of California ask prospective students to take three years of laboratory science. These colleges also advise taking a fourth year of science, for which one of the first three was a prerequisite. Specifically, students who are planning to apply to the most selective colleges should plan to take:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Advanced Biology, Chemistry, or Physics

Some high schools offer a variety of sciences. And while students should be encouraged to pursue subjects that interest them, the choice to avoid taking an AP lab course should be considered carefully. Harvard warns: “Courses in psychology, astronomy, geology, and anthropology are not appropriate substitutes for these subjects.”

Some colleges, however, require less science. The University of Oregon calls for two years of science, and the University of Florida does accept non-laboratory sciences like astronomy or geology. If you have some idea of which colleges your student likes, you should look at their admissions websites to determine which science classes he should plan to take.

Which Level of Science?

High schools often offer two levels of science, for instance: regular Chemistry and Advanced Standing Chemistry. Which level should your student take? To find out, we spoke with Elizabeth Houston, Assistant Director of Admissions at Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin is a highly selective college that admits about a third of its applicants every year. While Oberlin is often recognized for its excellence in the liberal arts, its second-most popular major is Biology.

Houston explains that what a student’s transcript is measured against what his high school offers. “We look for three years of laboratory science in our applications: biology, chemistry, and physics. We recommend that students take the most rigorous courses available. It looks better when a student has taken classes at the highest level offered at his school.” She says that students whose schools don’t offer AP classes shouldn’t be worried about the lack of those classes on their schedule. “But if you don’t take any honors classes when your school offers several, we start to wonder why you didn’t take advantage of them.”

How To Decide Between Regular or Advanced Science?

What if your student’s teacher recommends that he stay in regular science? Should you overrule the recommendation and push to be on the honors track? Maria Caryotakis teaches both Advanced Standing and regular Chemistry at Menlo-Atherton High School, and offers some insight on how to decide.  “There’s a big difference between AS and regular Chemistry,” she explains. “While the topics and timing are similar across both, AS classes dive more deeply into the subject material.” Students are expected to set up and solve their own mathematical equations, conduct “challenge” labs in which they apply previous experience to solving a new issue, and write up formal lab reports.

Caryotakis’ biggest concern about placement making sure that a student doesn’t lose her enthusiasm for science. “Students who are placed incorrectly in Advanced Standing classes miss out on the joy of science. I’ve taught kids who took AS against their counselor’s recommendation, and they struggle. They’re always worried about the math, the next test, finishing their lab report. But students who are placed correctly in regular chemistry are often the happiest students of all. They can relax and really enjoy the subject.”

Students should take AS classes if they have a strong math background and are comfortable with word problems. As for their grade in a previous science class, Caryotakis says, “I’d be surprised if it wasn’t an A.” Most of all, these students should be organized and enjoy independent problem solving. If your student struggles in any of these areas, it’s a much better idea to let him enjoy a regular science than to trudge through an honors class.

A Well-Rounded Schedule

Students should remember that the whole of their schedule is greater than the sum of its parts. Oberlin’s Houston emphasizes that academics are not the sole criteria for admissions. “Oberlin wants to build a well-rounded class, and we don't expect all students to have the same strengths.” So if science isn’t your child’s favorite subject, don’t get discouraged. Make up for it by showing strength in other areas and exploring real-world interests. If she works hard, cultivates her passions, and stays true to herself, a good-fit college will present itself and welcome her with open arms.