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Intended to guide students and their families when selecting high school courses, Choosing Courses to Prepare for College was produced by a Faculty committee. Choosing Courses offers our best advice for students preparing for liberal arts colleges with high academic demands.
This pamphlet is not intended to provide a formula for admission to Harvard. While there is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, we know that the course work you undertake in secondary school can prepare you for your future liberal arts education. We hope you will find the piece helpful as you make the choices that will help you be a successful college student.
Choosing Courses to Prepare for College was prepared under the auspices of three successive Deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences: A. Michael Spence, Henry Rosovsky, and Jeremy Knowles.
A good high school education should do more than prepare you for the next level of education or for later employment – it should prepare you to take advantage of future learning opportunities of all kinds. To this end, an academic program in high school should equip you with particular skills and information and should also impart a broad perspective on the world and its possibilities.
In this pamphlet, we should like to offer some guidance for you and your family as you are deciding on your high school courses. By choosing courses wisely you can improve both your chance of admission to a selective college, and your performance during the first years of college. In developing this advice, we have relied on empirical evidence, specifically, the secondary school preparation of our own students who successfully completed certain requirements of the Harvard A.B. or S.B. degree. We have felt for some time that families (and schools) should know what preparation has been effective in equipping students to do well academically. Because the content of courses may vary from high school to high school, we have tried to identify important knowledge, skills or habits of thought, rather than naming specific courses.
Our principal message is that you should choose the most academically demanding courses you can find. You and your family will of course take your individual situation into account. Just as each student has different talents and interests that need to be developed, schools vary considerably in their particular strengths. The chance to learn from a great teacher deserves consideration. Resource limitations may make it difficult or impossible to follow the recommended course of study. Our suggestions are simply offered as a kind of "ideal" model of preparation for the liberal arts program offered here. While nothing in this pamphlet should be interpreted as a formula for admission, to Harvard or to any other college, we hope that you find the following pages useful as you make choices to prepare yourself for a liberal arts college education.
Most of you study "English" every year in secondary school. But the content of English courses varies widely, and some of you will have a choice among several offerings. How should you choose? We recommend that you look for courses that will teach you how to read critically, or analytically, the works of major novelists, poets, and playwrights.
We hope that by the time you arrive at college you will love reading for its own sake, and that you will have gone beyond the books you have been required to read into areas of your own interest – fiction, biography, essays, or poetry – and that you will come to care about manner, as well as matter. Besides reading novels for what they can tell you about life in times and places other than your own, you will notice how authors treat different problems or how they treat the same problems in different ways. Authors vary in the social classes they explore, in the sort of characters they invent, and in how they tell a story. Your reading should lead to reflections on these differences. In at least one area, let your reading be as deep as you can make it. For example, read five novels of one author and see how the formal explorations of fictional possibilities within the novels change in the course of the author's life. Or, if your particular interest is a topical one (say, women writers), range through a couple of countries and centuries to see how your topic changes over space and time, as writers like Jane Austen or Toni Morrison confront their societies. The important thing is to read as much as you can, to find authors that you enjoy and investigate their work, to browse in libraries and bookstores and pick up new books that interest you, and to think critically about how your favorite writers differ from each other in content and in form. If you enjoy poetry, memorize poems until you carry them around inside your head. You will think differently about them once they are truly yours. You can bring to college no more valuable a possession than a mind well-stocked from reading. Just as speaking is modeled on hearing, so writing is modeled on reading. Every good writer was a good reader first.
You should leave secondary school knowing at least one foreign language well enough to read it easily and pronounce it acceptably. Knowing a foreign language enables you to enter another culture and to understand its ideas and its values. A fundamental aspect of language-learning must be a grasp of vocabulary and syntax that allows you to read novels, plays, poems, and magazines, with as much of a native speaker's comprehension as possible. We have found that students who have mastered a foreign language before they come to Harvard take more language courses here than those who have not. Indeed, these students often embark on the study of languages not commonly taught in American secondary schools.
Many secondary school students take a smattering of several languages – for example, Latin for two years, French for a year, and Spanish for a year. When it is too late, they realize that they cannot read or speak any of these languages well. We urge you to try to study at least one foreign language and its literature for four years. Continuity of study is important, too, because a "year off" from a language can be a real setback. Once you are comfortably fluent, you will possess that language – and better appreciate the culture it has shaped – for the rest of your life.
You will find that the study of history is fundamental to a liberal education, and provides you with an essential framework for much of the humanities and the social sciences. American History rightly occupies a special place in an American secondary school. It is particularly relevant to the experiences and aspirations of most American students, including those who recently arrived on our shores, since it helps to explain the character and achievements of our society. We urge you to study the age of discoveries, pre-Revolutionary North America, and the rise of the United States.
American History may be the only history required of you for graduation, but it is far from enough. You need a longer and broader perspective on the modern world than is possible by studying the United States alone if you are to appreciate both the legacy of the past and what is distinctive about our own time. We strongly recommend the study of European History.
Why Europe? Because Europe was the source of major ideas and institutions that have shaped the world in which we live. To function effectively in our heterogeneous society, all of us need to understand the assumptions underlying our political, social, and economic institutions. Through the study of Europe you will learn about ideas and institutions as diverse as freedom and slavery, colonialism and sovereignty, representative democracy and totalitarianism, the corporation and government regulation, and an array of ideologies including nationalism, capitalism, and socialism. By studying these ideas and institutions historically (that is, in context and through time), you learn to think about these matters analytically; to understand not only what happened by how and why.
If possible, take a third year of history – perhaps a year of ancient history, or the history of an area such as Latin America, Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. An additional year of American or European History can be especially valuable. The more history you study, the more you will appreciate the complexity of human affairs, and the better you will understand other cultures – an understanding that is fundamental to citizenship in a multicultural world.
Dates and places, names and events, are not trivial facts. They are the very stuff of history. "Concepts" are useless without information to back them up. If you do not know when the invention of gunpowder affected warfare, you will not fully understand the rise of nations from city states. If you are ignorant about when Commodore Perry arrived in Japan, you will not grasp the impetus for modernization in East Asia. If you are unfamiliar with the invention of the cotton gin, you will not comprehend the expansion of slavery westward in the United States.
The rigorous study of history is broader and provides a more basic preparation for college work than do courses on economics, comparative government, psychology, sociology and anthropology. Most of these subjects are better deferred until college.
Your college courses will require analytical writing. Whether you are writing about a work of literature, an historical or scientific problem, or a philosophical argument, your ability to point out the main features of other texts and ideas you are examining will be important. In argumentative prose, just as in a debater's argument, analysis means considering the line of reasoning, the nature of the audience, and the persuasive features of the style.
In writing a scholarly research paper, you depend on information from authors who know more than you do about the subject. Try to read with common-sense questions in mind. For example, for a paper on emigration from the American colonies in 1776, you might ask "Who were the people who chose to flee to Canada when the American Revolution began? Where in Canada did they go? Why? What became of them? Did they go on to England?" If you read with curiosity and purpose, you will be able to take notes more easily, to weigh one author's view against another, to categorize your research under leading questions, and to form your own observations and opinions.
Ideally, you will gain in secondary school some practice in thinking and writing about texts. You should arrive in college knowing how to quote or paraphrase, and how to attribute the information you have gleaned from others. The lack of these skills will put you at a serious disadvantage in college.
Writing often is the key to writing well. Almost any regular writing task, such as keeping a journal, makes your writing more fluent. It helps to have someone – a friend, a parent, a teacher – read your compositions so that you can see whether what you have put down on paper communicates your thoughts clearly and concisely. In this way, you can become a better critic of what you have written, and can act as your own editor. Writing for self-expression can provide deep pleasure; writing to find out what you can think can offer equally profound rewards.
No matter what your field of interest, mathematics will be essential for your higher education. It is the language, as Galileo put it, in which the book of nature is written. Today it is the common language describing new discoveries at the frontiers of science, of economic prediction, and of models of climate change.
To acquire the mathematical background you need at Harvard, you should study mathematics every year in secondary school. But simply taking mathematics is not enough. You should acquire the habit of puzzling over mathematical relationships. When you are given a formula, ask yourself why it is true and if you know how to use it. When you learn a definition, ask yourself why the definition was made that way. It is the habit of questioning that will lead you to understand mathematics rather than merely to remember it, and it is this understanding that your college courses require. In particular, you should select mathematics courses that ask you to solve hard problems and that contain applications ("word problems"). The ability to wrestle with difficult problems is far more important than the knowledge of many formulae or relationships.
By the time you get to college, the concept of a function, and its representation by a formula, a graph, or a table, should be second nature to you. For example, you should be able to sketch a graph of the time required to drive from Boston to New York as a function of average speed; or of the number of bacteria in a colony as a function of time given that each one divides in two every twenty minutes. A qualitative understanding of graphs – the ability to sketch and interpret graphs without plotting or reading specific points – is as important as the ability to draw graphs point by point. For example, does a given graph indicate that the concentration of a pollutant in a lake is leveling off, or increasing steadily?
In particular, you should be thoroughly familiar with the graphs and behavior of exponential and logarithmic functions, including doubling times and percentage growth rates. The trigonometric functions, and the ideas of amplitude, period, and phase, are important. Scientific notation and the ability to estimate orders of magnitude are frequently used. An increasing number of fields use the basic ideas of probability and statistics, such as mean, median, mode, and standard deviation.
If you are well-versed in algebra, functions, and graphing, secondary school calculus will enable you to take more advanced introductory courses in mathematics, physics, and chemistry in college. But do not rush into calculus. It may surprise you to know that success in first-year quantitative courses at college is determined more by the strength of your proficiency in algebra, functions, and graphing than by whether or not you have studied calculus in secondary school. Courses in the natural and social sciences often depend more on a real understanding of the behavior of different kinds of functions than on the ability to use calculus.
In the last analysis, however, it is not what courses you have taken, but how much you have thought about mathematics, that counts. More important than the knowledge of a specific mathematical topic, is the willingness to tackle new problems.
The natural sciences help to explain, to predict, and sometimes to control, the processes responsible for phenomena that we observe. They constitute a large and growing portion of human knowledge important to everyone. Even if you have no intention of becoming a scientist, an engineer, or a physician, you should study some science throughout secondary school.
A desire for knowledge is not the only motivation for studying science. Broadening the range of human activity through technological advance, fighting disease, and controlling the earth's environment, also spur scientists and engineers to discovery and invention. How did the universe begin? What laws govern its behavior? What is life? Did life result from the chemical reactions of inanimate matter? Could it? How does a fertilized egg become a baby? What are memory and consciousness? Does the human mind consist of more than a large number of interactive nerve cells in the brain? The study of science begins with the habit of asking questions. These questions are fascinating in themselves and their answers can be equally engaging. To answer such questions, scientists perform experiments, make measurements, and develop theories to explain and predict the phenomena they observe. Such experiments and observations are the essence of science and are a critical part of secondary school as well as college science education.
Since the basic laws of chemistry and physics remain important and valid, since they illustrate how scientific knowledge is acquired, and since they must be learned to understand more recent scientific developments, it is essential that you study chemistry and physics in secondary school. Your college work will build upon these courses. To be well-prepared for college, you should study secondary school science for four years if possible: a year of chemistry, physics, and biology, and a year of advanced work in one of these disciplines. Courses in psychology, astronomy, geology, and anthropology are not appropriate substitutes for these subjects.
We believe that you should prepare for college by mastering certain subjects and skills. You should demonstrate your proficiency in the areas described below by taking SAT II Subject Tests and Advanced Placement tests.
In summary, we recommend:
Various important secondary school subjects, such as art and music, are not specifically mentioned in our recommendations. The omission of these subjects should not be interpreted as a value judgment. We are concerned only with secondary school subjects for which we have data that suggest they are specific prerequisites for college work.
While we believe that the conclusions summarized in this booklet will meet the expectations of many other selective colleges, let us say a word about Harvard, since it was here that the data underlying our conclusions were gathered. This pamphlet is not intended to provide a formula that will ensure admission to Harvard. Our admissions policies are based on many criteria. Some are academic; others are not. Our Admissions Office chooses carefully from a broad range of applicants who seem to us to offer the most promise for future contributions to society. Not all of the students who are best prepared for college will be among those with the most future promise, nor are all of the most promising well prepared academically. While the heart of the matter will always lie in academic promise, we prize candidates with special talents and with outstanding personal qualities; we are interested in students who excel in one or more extracurricular activities; and we seek a distinctive and diverse national and international student body. Most of all we look for students who make the most of their opportunities and the resources available to them, and who are likely to continue to do so throughout their lives.
© 1993 by the President and Fellows of Harvard University