Some of the most fulfilling meetings I have with students are less focused on college than on what's immediately ahead in high school. 

They're also a great opportunity for students to put a framework in place for an important set of choices in college: course selection.

In our meetings, the process of weighing students' choices of future classes happens in a fairly conversational way. But as I've thought back over those conversations, I've recognized that there are six important steps every high school student should cover:

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  1. Research the course progression pathways and graduation requirements at your school. If you look at the sample chart above, you can see that there are four fairly distinct tracks for four years of math at Santa Monica High School (tracks that are similar to those of most high schools). Here you're getting the birds' eye view so that you can determine where you want to wind up by the time you graduate. I find that it's much easier to stay on track with the work I'm doing during any given semester if I have a sense of where it's leading.
  2. Think about your interests. What types of classes do you typically like? What subject areas are you eager to explore? What topics grab your attention right away? Make sure you're taking the time to really listen to that voice in your head while still taking into account what will make you a strong college applicant. Where do you stand to benefit personally from a particular class? How will you start to develop the life skills that not only colleges but future employers will want to see?
  3. Get a sense of what colleges require and recommend. College prerequisites are usually not the same as high school graduation requirements. If your goal is to be competitive for the Ivy League or an Ivy-like school, remember that most successful applicants take a minimum of 8 - 10 AP courses over their high school career, depending on what's offered at their high school. That's a hefty load. One good resource for checking to make sure you're on target for your top colleges is -- look up your college of interest and head to the "Admissions" tab.
  4. Do some class and teacher reconnaissance with friends who are older. It's always striking to me how many students tend to overlook this step, given the fact that it's usually the teachers who make or break their experience in current classes. Ask around! If there are multiple teachers running a single class, who will you fit with? What is their teaching style and philosophy like? Are they tough graders? Do they pile on the work? Do students tend to feel like it's worthwhile or more like it's a bunch of busywork? How many hours of work do they tend to assign each night or each week for homework? How much writing is there in class?
  5. Lay out your entire schedule and assess your commitments and capacity realistically. Once your options start to shape up, lay them out in one place, along with all of your other commitments outside of school. I recommend doing this in two formats: (1) on a calendar for the full school year + summer; and (2) on a weekly template. The full-year layout will show you clearly your seasons of overload and lightened pressure; the weekly template can give you a much more realistic picture of the hours you have in the week to commit.
  6. Strike up a good balance. For the students who have their sights set on the elite schools, this is a near-impossible task because the competition is so stiff, and because the system is essentially set up to weed out anyone who can't handle almost superhuman workloads. For everyone else, it's about challenging yourself to a degree that gets you outside of that comfort zone slightly, but still affords the opportunity to enjoy your high school years while actually learning a few things that feel interesting and relevant. This type of balancing act will be an ongoing challenge for you throughout life -- now is the time to start giving it the attention it's calling for!