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When applying to college, how much do advanced courses matter?

After Patrick Henry High School cut honors and advanced courses — a move the school backtracked after concerns from families — one of the biggest students and parents had how that would affect future college applications.

Many wondered: If a high school offers fewer advanced courses, does that hurt students’ chances of getting into their preferred colleges?

In addition to making a more impressive course list, advanced courses boost students’ GPAs. The University of California, for example, grants an honors weight point to certain advanced courses, including Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate Higher Level courses, and UC-certified honors courses.

The Union-Tribune asked authorities atsome of San Diego’s and California’s most prominent and selective universities — UC San Diego, San Diego State, UCLA, USC and Stanford — how they consider students’ course lists and GPAs in admission applications.

Overall, they said that while advanced courses are important, they take steps to ensure that students whose high schools offer few advanced courses are not at a disadvantage compared with students who go to schools with many advanced courses.

Most college admissions officials granted by email; UCLA’s answers come from an interview with Gary Clark, the university’s admissions director. Some answers have been edited for length.

UC San Diego and USC officials said they were too busy to provide answers. UC San Diego directed the Union-Tribune to webpages with general information about their application review process.

Q: How important are grades, GPAs and courses taken in a student’s college application?

UCLAThey’re obviously really important. The backbone, I think, of any strong application to UCLA or to a UC is going to be the work that the student does in the classroom. The UC GPA is based exclusively on work that the student has done in their sophomore and junior year.

We don’t have any fixed weight associated with any part of the application. There are now 13, used to be 14, but with the removal of standardized testing there are 13 elements of comprehensive review that faculty allow us to review in considering an application. It’s just all considered in the overall holistic review process.

SDSU: Starting in 2018, and with the intention of moving toward a more comprehensive admissions process, SDSU’s Enrollment Services initiated a significant research effort to better understand the pre-enrollment indicators of success for our previous classes’ students. While cumulative GPA proved to be the strongest single predictor of success, other attributes tended to vary based on the intended major of students (ie those entering STEM majors were more successful if they had taken more units of mathematics). As a result, SDSU established a common set of variables to evaluate first-year applicants, but with weights that are different depending on the major to which they are applying.

Generally speaking, AG (courses required for UC/CSU admission) GPA accounts for 50 percent of the scoring. The other 50 percent is made up of differential weights placed on individual AG units (earned beyond the minimum 30 units required), the number of Math/Quantitative Reasoning units completed, as well as the grades in those classes, STEM units taken, foreign language grades and units, history grades and units, and presence — or not — in our local service area.

Other factors, such as the percentage of (underrepresented minorities) in their local high school, military status, participation in college preparatory programs, and whether one is a foster youth or a homeless youth, are also used as criteria for admission to specific programs.

There are a number of other factors, which the university has a multiyear plan to add to our comprehensive admissions model, and which include experiential activities, such as community service, and leadership and work experience.

Stanford: Stanford is committed to a holistic review of all candidates, which considers the range of information within each student’s application, including their academic background, life experience, educational context and other personal characteristics. Everything in an applicant’s record is considered together; no portion of the application is considered without the rest of the application.

Q: What does your university look for when evaluating applicants’ grades and courses taken? Is the general rule: The more advanced/honors/AP classes and the higher GPA, the better?

SDSU: More advanced classes do help, but they’re not the end-all-be-all of our evaluation process. As explained above, we look for students to be a good academic fit for their intended major based on several factors, which gets into which subject-level classes they have taken and their grades in them.

Q: If students are wondering which kinds of high school classes they should take to be competitive in college admissions, are certain kinds of courses better than others?

UCLA: It would be dangerous for me to say that, because if I indicate one as being preferred over another, then any school that doesn’t offer those kinds of classes would be at a disadvantage. The answer, really, is no, we just want to have that contextual knowledge of what is available to a student in the curriculum and to what degree they’re taking advantage of those courses.

SDSU: A challenging curriculum is important, but we do not have a preference between honors, AP and concurrent (community college) courses.

Stanford: We do not require a specific set of courses for admission to Stanford, and we do not have a preference for any particular curriculum. We have found that a curriculum emphasizing depth and breadth across core academic subjects (English, mathematics, science, history, foreign language) is the best preparation for the academic rigors at Stanford. We also encourage students to engage in honors or advanced coursework as is available to them.

Q: How does your university evaluate admission applications coming from schools with different course offerings? Is a student at a disadvantage if their high school offers few or no advanced courses?

UCLA: When we’re evaluating a student for admission, we’re really evaluating their academic performance in the context of their school, and what I mean by that is not all schools are the same in terms of what they offer: the availability of rigorous courses and what grading might look like in that school environment.

We don’t want to penalize the student for being in an environment where the school might limit APs, or some other situation … Our goal in evaluating a student’s academic work in high school is to do so in the appropriate context, which means we need to have an understanding of what is available to the student in their school program and to what extent they took advantage of those courses.

SDSU: This is a challenge for all universities. To try to maintain as much consistency as possible in our review, we generally concentrate on AG subject level classes, where there are some commonalities across learning outcomes, access to these courses and expectations.

We cap the number of points that students can earn for advanced coursework with this question in mind. We know there are not equal opportunities for students across all high schools.

Specifically, A=5 points, B=4 points, C=3 points. No more than two approved honors level courses taken in the 10th grade may be given extra points. A grade of “D” in an honors, International Baccalaureate or AP course does not earn extra points. Extra points are also awarded for college courses used to meet CSU AG requirements. However, no more than eight extra points may be awarded to any one applicant.

As a general admissions process, the university assigns extra points for up to eight semesters of approved honors level courses (ie IB or AP) taken in the last three years of high school.

Stanford: We do our absolute best to work with students and be flexible in consideration of their individual circumstances in the review and enrollment process.

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