Though there are many differences between the US admissions process and other international higher education systems, all systems make your academic achievement the most significant part of the evaluation. Assessing a student’s secondary school record will include a review of the rigour of the courses taken and grades received and/or predicted. Keep in mind that university admissions offices are knowledgeable about all secondary school curricula across the globe. However, because international students will often only have two sets of formal grades, GCSE results and A-Level/IB predictions, these sets of grades carry significant weight in the review process.   

Selecting Secondary School Courses for Selective US Universities:

As you are preparing to enter a new educational system with a liberal arts ethos, choosing courses with this system in mind is the best way to become an ideal applicant. For international students who want to get accepted to selective US universities, this may mean making decisions differently than your peers who are focused on attending schools in their home countries. At A-List, we are happy to advise students about their course selection for GCSEs, A-Levels, French Baccalaureate, International Baccalaureate, and the American system to ensure you have as many options as possible.  

The first way admissions committees evaluate applicants is by assessing the rigour of their chosen courses. However, different national education systems have different core and elective courses and weigh certain subjects more significantly than others. The US system does have core courses that are slightly different to what is offered in other international systems.  In the US, students take core courses plus electives for all four years of secondary school. These are in the sciences (biology, physics, chemistry), math, English, history, foreign languages (both modern and classic). Common electives are in the arts including drama, fine arts, creative writing, and music. Because US secondary schools are designed to prepare students for a liberal arts education at university, the secondary education is also broader than what is commonly offered at international schools. American high school students typically take six to seven subjects for all four years of secondary school.  

What does this educational philosophy and practice mean for international students?

First, please be reassured that a US admissions committee will evaluate you foremost by what your secondary school offers. No applicant will be penalized if they cannot take certain classes at their school.

Second, students who do attend schools with wide course offerings should seriously consider taking classes that align with the US core courses. This might mean choosing to take A-Level History rather than Politics. However, if attending a US university is your first choice, then that is a savvy decision to make.

Third, international students may want to consider taking four courses (If doing A-Level or Pre-U courses) rather than the standard three. This isn’t an absolute necessity. However, for the most selective schools in the US, it can help you stand out from other applicants in your country. It also demonstrates that you are eager to take on and handle the rigorous course work at a US university.  

The breadth plus depth approach of both US secondary schools and universities can also help international students choose their subjects. Though it can be common for international secondary school students to specialize in either STEM or Humanities subjects, those who are aiming to attend university in the US should consider taking both kids of courses. A humanities focused student who is taking A-Level or HL English and History should also considering continuing with math and/or a core science course. This demonstrates the breadth of your academic interests which helps a US admissions officer realise you would fit in perfectly with the US liberal arts system.

Also, this more balanced approach to course selection will benefit you beyond the admissions process. At A-List, we want our students to succeed once they arrive at their first-choice university. By taking a balance of writing intensive courses and continuing to refine your quantitative reasoning and scientific enquiry skills, you will be able to better handle the core requirements at selective US universities.

If you would like help choosing your courses so you can get accepted to selective US universities, please reach out to our advising team!


Academic Rigour and Academic Record: What Top US Unis Want to See
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