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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brooks, Ph.D.


Always understand the big picture - Post #7 of 21

Elementary Kids Playing Chess

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was my first day ever of teaching high school. I was twenty-eight and wearing a very painful, blindingly-white, starched shirt and an even more constricting polyester tie. And wouldn’t you know it, my very first class of this very first day of teaching ever, here at 7:50 am, was Freshman Honors English. I sat nervously shuffling papers, waiting on the bell, and from out in the classroom, among the nervous pre-class chatter, I overheard a guy say something like “because they should’ve behaved theirselves!” Then, as if in slow motion, I saw a very polished front-row girl with perfect posture turn and snap at the guy, “theirselves isn’t even a word!” Suddenly there were unlocatable snickers all around and the guy instantly shriveled up in horror, painfully aware that he was now swimming with the sharks of Honors English. He had made a course selection mistake, and now he would pay. Or had he? Welcome to high school.

The bell rang, I stood, and the class, in laughable synchrony, turned and faced forward and fell into a very practiced, abject silence, right along with the polished girl. Everyone was smiling expectantly. I thought to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?”

But, of course, I knew. I was teaching Freshman Honors English, a class of 22 unadulterated gunners. Fortunately, before I was a chess nerd, I was an English nerd. I took to teaching high school English like a polar bear to ice. Later in the day I also taught Junior AP European History, which meant I would see most of these 22 kids again in two years, and then again the following year as I processed in wearing even more uncomfortable clothes—black, flowing-sleeved Ph.D. gown and tam o’shanter—during their graduation ceremony.

I had been granted the unique privilege of teaching every honors kid in my high school twice, in two very different subjects, at two very different developmental stages: freshman year and junior year. Consequently, it was from this very immersive, informed perspective that, year after year after year, I developed and fine-tuned my opinion about the value of honors courses. Here are the reasons I recommend taking every honors course that is available and for which your child is qualified - in addition to the preparatory step to take prior to that point:

1) You Have Prepared for This!

So right off the bat, let me say that an all-honors wall of courses on your transcript is a good idea, but unfortunately it is not one you can mercurially decide upon in February of your child’s eighth grade year while you are completing your Freshman-year course selection card. If you were to throw an unprepared child into an all-honors course load it would be tantamount to child cruelty. The kids who happily handle such a course load are the kids who had been warned, braced, and coached up on this reality throughout their childhoods. By the time my three kids arrived at eighth-grade course selection, they had been taking advanced math and advanced English and advanced Spanish, etc., for years. They did every different debate and summer chess camp and musical instrument training we could schedule. Consequently, their self-identity was firmly in place as someone who belongs among the Honors pack--and belongs nowhere else--so their headspace was clear and focused. They were smart. They were workers. They were determined. In other words, your kids should be convinced for the ten years leading up to high school that all-honors is the right approach.

2) Honors Friends.

Whoa nelly is this an important point. Earlier posts in this blog have alluded to this element, but let’s just state it once and for all for the record: surrounding your child by determined, academically ambitious, intellectually curious friends is so valuable that even if your child never attends any college whatsoever, the all-honors course load would have been worth it. These classes forge friendships and a kind of bootcamp mentality that affords your child a cadre of kids who be engaging in a similar academic battle. As humans, we are highly likely to pick up the habits of those we are around. I suspect that you want your kids making excited, life-long friends who share your goals. Fun chess classes and tournaments for kids is one way to build up a strong group of smart, likeminded friends, and honors classes throughout high school is another.

Smart Elementary Chess Friends

3) Deep Learning.

I have great respect for teachers everywhere – what a load they are shouldering these days! But speaking in broad brush strokes, the reason a teacher is assigned to conduct an honors class is usually because, in a given high school, they are the best person for the job. Over the years, teachers develop a profound expertise in a given field, and eventually many lecture on it with no notes or aids; more importantly, they have developed methods to really tap into a student’s curiosity and to make the subject matter come alive. Because schools need a prestigiously high percentage of kids to earn a 4 or 5 on the AP tests sponsored by each school, teachers are chosen carefully. In every conceivable subject, the material can be startling uplifting, exciting, and compelling if presented correctly and intelligently. I loved Chemistry because I had a magical chemistry teacher and she made the class magical. If your teacher is making your class magical, let me tell you, that is a much easier "A" than a class you have to slog through or work to stay awake in. Additionally, you will remember the material for a long time, maybe even a lifetime. I know I still get cards and emails from students I taught fifteen or twenty years ago.

To that point, it is not only the subject matter that is taught well in honors and AP courses, but also the learning techniques, ways to organize, and cool memory tricks. Significantly, such tricks and gimmicks can be applied to every class moving forward, not just the class where you learned the cool new organizing trick that apparently only your honors teacher knew.

The main point is that if a student is actually excited about learning, which surprisingly many are, then where you most likely should go to find that great teaching is an honors course. The student who was mentioned above, for example—the one who said the word “theirselves”—ended up enjoying his Freshman Honors English class immensely, and he learned a myriad of new words in the process. Fighting through a real challenge and emerging with an “A” at the end of a mighty struggle is some of the best sort of character building. Ever heard someone say “Learning is Fun!” and then you rolled your eyes at how ridiculously wrong this statement is? Well, in most honors classes, learning is actually fun!

Smart Elementary Chess Kid

4) Rigor and GPA.

Highly-selective schools want to know that your child took a rigorous course of study. Of course, not all high schools are equal, and some schools may offer more honors and AP classes than others. But your college will receive from your high school guidance counselor a matrix of all what courses the high school offered, and the college can then tell just how much your child challenged him or herself. If you want to get into the best schools, you need to be challenging yourself as much as possible during high school.

Additionally (while this may vary by school district), when an honors or AP course is taken, an additional honors GPA point is bestowed by your high school registrar. One well-kept secret is that all elite colleges calculate GPA by omitting all non-academic classes like Art, PE, and Home Economics. Another is that virtually all elite colleges ignore the “unweighted GPA” on a given transcript and only care about the “weighted GPA.” For example, if a student took all honors throughout high school and made half “A”s and half “B”s, the GPA would be 4.5. This is a tremendously high GPA and it would likely get someone at least into the “under consideration bracket” at an elite university. Of course, high schools have many graduation requirements that are not honors, such as PE, health, career preparedness, etc. The trick is to minimize these courses and to take as many honors courses as possible.

A common theme in college admissions blogs is whether a “B” in an honors course is better than an “A” in a non-honors course. To me, the answer is obvious. Of course it is! Think from the perspective of an admissions committee who is dealing with 20,000 applicants in a given year. First, they will cull the bottom 80% of applicants by GPA and ACT scores. Then, when faced with a pool of 4000 remaining super-students, strength of schedule and an amazing transcript is one of the primary determinants. The bottom-line here is that “B”s in honors and AP courses are fine, and are in fact a badge of honor. “A”s in non-honors classes, on the other hand, are invisible, or perhaps even worse than invisible, to committees facing the reality of having to eliminate almost everyone who applies. You’ve heard the old adage “curiosity killed the cat?” In the elite college admissions game, it is exactly the opposite: lack of intellectual curiosity killed the cat.

An extremely obscure final fact for this section is that at many high schools, including the fifth-in-the-state-ranked high school my three kids went to, if you take an honors course and make an 87.5 percentage, they count that as an “A” because 2 points are added onto the final average for every honors course. Then the extra GPA point is applied on top of those extra 2 points. This varies by school district, so know how your school addresses this. In our case, for AP courses the secret bump is four points, meaning an 85.5% is deemed an 89.5%, which shows as an “A” on the transcript and is calculated as an “A” for GPA purposes. For this reason alone, honors and AP courses are an absolute GPA goldmine. This honors point bump can also help with stress, since the students know they have a little more leeway in their grades.

5) The Wow Factor.

The bottom line about honors and AP courses, however, is that when your dream college admissions committee first sees your child’s transcript, the committee should feel like they just opened the doors of Fort Knox and are greeted by stacks of gold bars. Scary freshman year? A block of muscular honors courses. Busy sophomore and junior years? Pure muscle on that transcript. Checked-out senior year? Six scary AP courses. Your child’s transcript should exude a phosphorescent excellence that is only delivered by a wall of challenging, difficult courses that never, ever wavered. Got a dream school? Sure you do. Now Google this question for them:

Elite University Applicant Count

And here is what you will find for literally all elite, top-30 universities.:

And remember, choosing honors courses does not only affect college admissions, but also induction into all the many honor societies in high school. Additionally, an unbroken wall of honors and AP courses on a transcript results in almost automatic scholarships to many good colleges. Job applications shine when hard courses are included, and never forget that during the senior year when you request of your favorite teacher to write you that almighty teacher recommendation to your dream school, the very first thing they will do is bring up your transcript on their desktop computer. So ensure that they are wowed by you in class, and then ensure that they are wowed again when they see you have taken so many other challenging classes as well.


The next post will begin Part 2: Freshman Year and Executing a Formidable Chess Opening with Post 8: Perfecting your Academic Index, and Understanding that Academic Index is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient.


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