Are your high school classes too hard or too easy?

How to plan your final years of high school with classes that are just the right amount of rigorous—especially if you want to attend a selective college

Are your high school classes too hard or too easy?

I work with many underclassmen who can’t determine if their classes are too hard or too easy. If your goal is to attend a selective college, the rigor of your academic program and your grades are the best indicators of how well you’ll do.

Before you register for next year’s classes, take this quick survey to decide how you should plan your junior and senior years.

1. How much time do you spend on homework?

About 15 to 21 hours a week
b. About 7 to 14 hours a week
c. Fewer than 7 hours a week
d. More than 22 hours a week or I don’t do any homework at all

On average, you should be doing two to three hours of homework each night. Being over- or underworked may be a symptom that your courses are too rigorous or too easy. If you answered D, make an appointment with your guidance counselor and your teachers so they can advise you accordingly.

2. What are your grades in your academic courses?

Mostly A’s (90+ average)
b. Mostly B’s (80+ average)
c. Mostly C’s (70+ average)
d. Less than C’s (below 70 average)

If there are courses that you are stronger in than others, speak to your parents and guidance counselor so they can design an action plan to help you work on your weaknesses. It is important to identify subjects that you are strong in. Plan to increase the rigor in those classes. Then, get extra help on subjects you find particularly challenging.

3. Compared to your classmates, in the classroom, do you feel like you:

a. Understand the material all of the time
b. Understand the material almost all of the time
c. Understand the material sometimes
d. Are usually lost

You are usually placed in courses with students of comparable ability. You should be able to assess your own skills by comparing yourself to classmates. If you are at the top of your class, that particular class may be too easy. If you are struggling, then that class may be too challenging.

4. How often do you participate in class discussion and activities?

a. Regularly
b. Sometimes
c. Only when my teacher asks me
d. Never

Active class contributions reflect how engaged you are with course content, teachers and peers. This is a great habit to develop because when classes get more challenging, students who show genuine interest in learning usually do better than those who do not.

5. You’ve been assigned a challenging project.
After exploring all your options (asking for help from friends, parents, relatives and campus resources, such as librarians), you are still lost. How do you feel asking your teacher for additional help?

a. Always comfortable; I ask for help from my teacher before the assignment is due
b. Sometimes comfortable; I only ask for help when I get a bad grade
c. Uncomfortable; I am afraid or embarrassed to ask for help
d. Very uncomfortable; I’d rather figure things out on my own and suffer the consequences

There are times when an assignment can be confusing.  You need to know when to ask your teacher for help. Your teachers expect that you show your resourcefulness by asking for assistance and using outside resources to get the best grades possible. Understanding your limits and fulfilling your teachers’ expectations are excellent habits to develop. It will lead to academic success especially when your courses become more challenging.

Use your responses to guide your discussion with your teachers, guidance counselor and parents when you register for courses.

Mostly A’s:
Chances are, your current coursework is too easy. You probably have the skills and confidence to handle more challenging classes. Ask your teachers and guidance counselors if they can recommend a more rigorous course of study. Plan to take the toughest courses possible in every academic subject area and, if possible, enroll in at least five academic subjects in your junior and senior years. If you are already enrolled in the toughest courses available to you, investigate taking courses outside of school, such as those offered at a local college or university.

Mostly B’s:
You are taking the right level of courses. But with improved studying techniques and a little more effort, you could get better grades. Identify your academic strengths and weaknesses. Ask your guidance counselor to enroll you in more challenging courses in subjects that you do well in, and work with your teacher to make sure that you do well in courses in which you are struggling.

Mostly C’s:
Some courses will be harder than others because of content. For example, you may have a natural ability in foreign language that you don’t have in science. On the other hand, some courses may be overwhelming because of teacher expectations. It is a good idea for you to work with tutors or a study group after school. Although you’ll be able to fulfill your high school’s graduation requirements, I would caution against taking classes that may be too challenging, as they might shatter your confidence.

Mostly D’s:
Your current coursework is either too rigorous, or there may be circumstances that prevent you from performing up to your potential. I highly recommend working one-on-one with a tutor on a regular basis. Your parents should be regularly checking in with your teachers to monitor your academic progress. Finally, meet with your guidance counselor regularly to ensure that you are on track to complete your high school’s graduation requirements.

Katherine L. Cohen, Ph.D., is CEO and founder of IvyWise and


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