How common is going to a more selective college with no advanced high school course work?

How common is going to a more selective college with no advanced high school course work (but with the usual college prep courses like 4 years of English, math through precalculus, biology / chemistry / physics, 3 or 4 years of history and social studies, foreign language through year 3 or 4, art / music)?

“Advanced high school course work” means:

  • AP
  • IB HL
  • A-level
  • AICE
  • college courses (not remedial from a college viewpoint)
  • other advanced courses covering college-frosh-or-higher-level material that are claimed to be “better or more advanced than AP/etc.” (e.g. at some elite prep schools that do not want to follow AP syllabi)

Then, how well do such students do in college?

Generally not common. You can find some specific numbers in the freshman survey at .

Among students attending private universities with an average SAT score of 1276+:

*11.3% of students said that they did not take any AP courses – 8.8% attended HSs that did not offer AP courses; only 2.5% chose to not take APs at HS that offered them.

*11.3% of students also said that they took IB courses. A good portion of those who did not take AP courses no doubt took IB courses instead. So I think it is safe to say the portion who did not take AP, IB, or equivalent is very small.

This does not mean that taking AP, IB, … or equivalent is a requirement for being accepted to a highly selective private colleges. Many highly selective colleges go out of their way to insure that kids who attend many HSs were such courses are not offered are not expected to take them. However, kids who attend such HSs rarely apply to highly selective private colleges. Instead kids who apply to highly selective private colleges tend to attend HSs in wealthy areas, with good course offerings.

One can find many exceptions to these generalities. For example, I live in a wealthier area and interview applicants at some of the nearby HSs for a HYPSM college. One of the area HSs that I have interviewed at is a smaller, specialty project-based charter school that does not offer any AP/IB/… type classes. According to USNWR, <1% of students take an AP exam. Nevertheless, they get many acceptances to highly selective publics such as UCB and UCLA every year. They don’t seem to have many kids who apply to highly selective privates, but they do have HYPS acceptances some years. I don’t recall ever seeing a MIT or Caltech acceptance.

It happens. Not often, but it does. Such students are often hidden gems. They go to schools where advanced courses are not offered, and are in family situations that are not conducive to getting access on their own.

Back in my day, it happened all the more. Now with the internet and with high schools given incentives to provide some sort of advanced course offerings, not as much. DH went to a small town high school without AP or any advanced courses, though it did have “Honors” designations to some classes. Now days, the same high schoool has been much expanded, incorporating smaller area schools and AP courses are offered.

Selective colleges claim that they assess students within the context of their environment. A kid who goes to a school that offers little or nothing in basics but somehow manages to show unusual academic interests and achievement could stand out. Such students are, however, rare birds.

It can of course happen with some special talent or achievement that contributes to the mix on campus.

Homeschooling students might also be included in the data.

Would it be useful to figure out how many high schools in the US have no options for higher level work? I am guessing there aren’t actually that many, but I honestly have no idea.

D attended college with a guy from rural Maine whose high school had something like 300 kids and no advanced courses at all. He ended up on academic probation as a sophomore and struggled to get back on track, but he managed it. I think he was one of the few kids to go to a rigorous college, as opposed to the most local option. I think the idea of going to a hard college is pretty intimidating to a lot of kids from those high schools.

I think there could be a steep learning curve for kids who come from less rigorous high schools when they get to college. One great example is the story of Cedric Jennings, as told in the book A Hope in the Unseen. The kids at these high schools who are bright and motivated, the “rare birds” as @cptofthehouse describes, the home school kids, kids who just took a long time to grow up, and probably many others are out there, but I don’t know where we could find data on how they do once in college. It would certainly make for a fascinating study.

Our close friend is the son of a migrant worker. He stayed with our family— my parents and siblings as his family would move seasonally because he was such a star student. But he also worked the fields when his family was in town, and did a lot of child care for his siblings.

He went to MIT. Some struggles freshman year, but he has a masters in Engineering from there and a Harvard MBA. But that was 35-40 years ago. That high school now offers AP courses just as DH’s high school now does. The AP test scores from this highschool is shameful— they exult over the 3s. But they do offer APs.

FWIW, D20’s roommate at a T20 LAC came from a T20 private day school that sends a lot of kids to great colleges but offers no AP classes. D came from an unimpressive public school in a lower middle class county seat where she took 6 APs, 1 IB, and 5 DE classes. They just completed their first week of classes. One is complaining about the amount of work and says she is having a hard time keeping on top of it all. The other says it is less work than high school. While it is way too early to draw any conclusions, it certainly makes for interesting conversations both in the dorm room and on the phone calls home.

I guess it depends on your definition of "more selective ".

There are many students at Purdue from very small rural high schools that fit your description. Those students typically are invited to do an “early start” program in the summer to get them up to speed and have required additional tutoring supports throughout the year.

D knows one such student in engineering. The student has been playing catch up in math courses and needed to take summer classes but otherwise holding their own. (Very, very bright student BTW). That said, this engineering friend was rejected from all the other T20 engineering programs he applied to.

I have a sense that the state flagships are willing to work with those instate students more so than the privates.

But wouldn’t a “T20 private day school” offer courses covering advanced level material, even if it chooses not to follow AP (or IB etc.) syllabi for them?

AP (or IB, etc.) are not offered by schools that don’t have the resources, but also by schools that think these courses are too structured, too limiting, and/or insufficiently advanced.


The OP specifically excluded schools that do not offer AP for pedagogical reasons, but offer courses of comparable rigor. Let’s not get sidetracked

However, the latter schools do offer their own advanced level courses; students at those schools who take such advanced level courses are not whom I was asking about.

My question, too. That means different things to different people.

Are we talking the usual top 30 nationals and top 30 LACs? 40 and 40? 20 and 20?

Whatever the range, it would be nice to read some research on this.

@ucbalumnus I would certainly agree that they would offer advanced level material. They absolutely offer a lot of classes that would challenge the brightest students and leave some AP/IB students in awe. D’s roommate did take extremely high level Latin, for example, and signed up for a Latin course because it taught material she has learned previously. The speed and depth of the material is still a shock to her. I’m not saying she is ill prepared nor offering a commentary on the rigor or merits of her education. I was merely thinking that the push to cover a set amount of material in a fixed amount of time with a specific goal in mind prepares students in a different way for the college experience.

The most selective colleges will want to see the guidance counselor check the box that says the student has taken the most rigorous courseload available at the HS. If this box is not checked in the guidance counselor LOR I think the odds of getting into a highly selective college are slim.

However, many fine colleges should be available to a student who has done well in a college prep schedule even if it not the most rigorous group of courses offered. On a personal note, my S had such a schedule (at a very rigorous/competitive/well-known public HS) with good (but not amazing) ECs and essays and solid (not spectacular) standardized tests. He went on to a college ranked 65-85 by USNWR. I would guess that nature/reputation of the HS he attended worked in his favor in terms of admissions. Once in college he worked very hard and graduated with a very good GPA. He was a late bloomer who overcame learning issues. Once he found a major that aligned with his interests and abilities he really took off (and FWIW he went on to attend the #4 ranked grad school in his field and is a successful young professional).

A few years ago, it was commonly stated that about half of US high schools did not offer any calculus course. However, it looks like many of these were small schools serving mainly less academically oriented students (continuation / reform schools, juvenile hall schools, etc.), so that accounted for a larger percentage of schools than students. However, the percentage of students in high schools that did not offer any calculus course was still significant (about a seventh, according to ), and higher (a) in rural (versus suburban and urban) areas, (b) for Black students in urban and rural areas, and © in higher poverty areas.

But calculus is not the only possible advanced level course that a high school can offer. It is possible that some of the high schools that do not offer calculus offer other advanced level courses (this may be more likely for specialized or charter schools focused on humanities or arts, for example).

In the freshman survey linked in my post above, only 6.9% of students attending a 4-year college said that their HS did not offer any AP courses. Of course only looking at 4-year college students presents a bias since lower SES kids are both more likely to attend a HS that does not offer AP classes and less likely to attend a 4-year college.

The AP reports ~23k high schools offered at least 1 AP class. The NCES reports that there are ~27k secondary schools in the US and ~16k combined elementary+secondary schools.

Likely not common, unless your school doesn’t offer any advanced courses or very few, in which case it’s still recommend to try to take courses at the local CC (some districts will pay for this) etc. On the other hand, if your school offers multiple AP/IB/Advanced courses, selective colleges will expect you to take a good number of them (at least in your areas of interest,) as you HAVE the opportunity vs. students at the former school that don’t.

Despite the variation of grading scales across the country, a selective college is going to want to take the student that challenged themselves in high schoo (and with the higher GPA, although some leeway is likely provided for schools KNOWN for tough grading by Admissions) vs. the one that has a 4.0 in less rigorous courses: even if the latter might be equally successful when coming to their college, Admissions has no evidence to substantiate this, and is more likely to take the former who HAS shown that they have taken advantage of their school’s resources, and will likely do the same in college.

The issue isn’t if a student challenged themselves but if there were no advanced options available for them at all. In that case, I don’t know how the GC rates rigor and colleges do say that they take context into account.

How about colleges (or majors/divisions within colleges that admit by major/division) which are selective enough that a student with an unweighted 3.5 HS GPA in a full set of college-prep courses (but not necessarily many or even any advanced level courses) would find to be a match, or colleges which are more selective than that?