How to Get the Most Out of High School Programs

Getting the most out of high school means challenging classes and proving to universities that a student is committed to working hard.

For students committed to pushing themselves in high school, an unfortunate roadblock can sometimes be indecision between different rigorous programs. Getting the most out of high school can mean making difficult choices.

Choosing between the International Baccalaureate program, Advanced Placement courses and dual enrollment can be a headache for a student simply trying to try harder. High schoolers may start to worry making the “wrong” choice will impact them later when applying to college

Luckily, there is no “right” or “wrong” choice, says Jodi Chycinski, former associate vice president and director of admissions at Grand Valley State University

“I think students should take on the amount of rigor in high school they feel they will benefit from,” Chycinski says. “Sometimes, students can feel pressure to take certain courses, and while AP or IB might be excellent for some students, for others it might not be the best fit. ” 

She says GVSU understands not all schools offer rigorous programs and won’t penalize students.

Chris Layson, IB coordinator at the Utica Academy for International Studies, says choosing between rigorous high school programs is the “big question” for many college-bound high schoolers.

“I ask parents and students to educate themselves and really research the benefits,” Layson says. “Obviously, the increased rigor of AP and IB is certainly going to help them with college preparation.”

Dual enrollment differs from AP and IB programs because earning college credit doesn’t come down to a series of stressful exams; rather, a student earns credit by actually taking college courses. Earning credits this way can be a relief to students worried about earning high scores. 

Layson says regardless of which rigorous program students choose, they are often better prepared for the demands of college and find success in their coursework.

How to get the most out of AP, IB and dual credit courses

Once a student has chosen the path best for them, it’s time to make that program work to their advantage later on. A shared benefit of each of these programs is the opportunity for a student to enter college with credits already completed.

Layson says his oldest son recently graduated from the Utica Academy for International Studies and earned 32 credits at Alma College from his IB exams before ever stepping foot on campus. 

“When students decide where they want to go to college, they need to investigate the AP and IB equivalencies at the specific schools they’re considering,” he says. “Some colleges will award credit for a 4 in AP, while others require a 5. The same is true for the higher level and standard level classes and scores for IB exams – that’s up to the individual universities, so I ask parents and students to do their research.” 

With tuition prices so high, saving a semester’s worth of tuition costs can really make a difference, but getting the most out of these programs beyond saving money depends on what the student is looking to achieve.

Does he have a specific career dream and want to focus mainly on rigorous classes related to that field? Or does she want to practice skills that will be important in college, like completing challenging research essays? 

Counselor Nicole Toderan at Sashabaw Middle School in Clarkston —  one of the top districts in the state offering all three programs — says each program offers different benefits. 

If a student wants to flourish at an intense liberal arts university, taking the IB program, a “challenging program that emphasizes globalism and fosters interdisciplinary learning,” might be the right choice. 

“The IB Program is a good fit for students who are looking for a true liberal arts education, and those who enjoy reading and writing and working collaboratively,” Toderan adds, in part because IB students take a philosophy course, write a 4,000-word research paper and have mandatory extracurricular requirements. 

To get the most out of AP, decide whether focusing on only a few subjects more closely would benefit the student. 

“If a student is an aspiring engineer, taking the AP Calculus and AP Physics courses and passing their respective exams will prove to college admissions committees they’re serious about engineering and have the skills necessary to be successful in a college engineering program,” Toderan says. 

At many Michigan high schools, including Clarkston High School, dual enrollment classes are offered through a partnership through a local university. 

Clarkston’s program “allows motivated students to earn direct college credit by taking accredited courses taught by University of Michigan-Flint faculty in the high school setting,” she says. It’s “a good fit for students who know what area they’d like to study in college and still want the freedom to take other electives.” 

Why work through high school matters

Most people know good grades have something to do with getting into college, but there’s another factor to grades people may not realize: grade trends. 

“Over the course of three years, are we seeing GPAs steadily increase, or has it steadily decreased?” Chycinski says. “A decline in GPA alone isn’t detrimental, but understanding the context really comes down to the student taking the time to explain that to us [in the application].” 

“Colleges like to see a ‘trend of progression,'” says Layson. “They want to see students have learned from their mistakes. That can be an incredible point of emphasis for students in their college essays.” 

GPAs are always part of the equation, he says. “You have your grades, your standardized tests, and then you have your rigorous coursework and that’s what you are on paper to colleges.”

Of course, working hard through high school matters for more than grades — it creates a foundation for students to rely on later.

“Every student’s situation is unique – whether out of necessity or desire,” Chycinski says. “When we open an application, we’re looking at what students are presenting related to themselves — not comparing them to everyone else.” 

“Every college is different, so the way we review an applicant can be different, but most institutions will look at the academic credentials, because a student needs to have a demonstrated foundation to handle what’s required in the classroom.”

Content sponsored by Michigan Education Savings Program. Visit
Find more articles like this at Making Your Child’s College Dreams Come True.

Amanda Rahn
Amanda Rahn
Amanda Rahn is a freelance journalist, copy editor and proud Detroiter. She is a graduate of Wayne State University’s journalism school and of the Columbia Publishing Course at Oxford University. Amanda is a lover of translated contemporary fiction, wines from Jura and her dog, Lottie.


  1. I agree that working hard is a lot more important than getting good grades in high school. I plan to start looking for a private high school for my son soon because it’s going to be his last chance to learn more about faith before getting thrown into the real world. He has been quite religious throughout his childhood so I think it wouldn’t be such a change of pace for him to go into a Christian school.


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