01/08/2013 01:02 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Changing Your Schedule Can Hurt Your College Chances


The college hopes of students all across America are about to take a serious self-inflicted hit. Even as we speak, seniors are rediscovering the textbooks and assignments they neglected over Christmas break. As they review the depth and breadth of this homework, they promise themselves "Next semester will be different" -- but they aren't talking about being more organized. They're talking about dropping Physics and Advanced Math for History of Pizza and Advanced Badminton.

And that's where the trouble begins.

Most students don't realize it, but the college applications they complete and the acceptances they receive all have one thing in common -- colleges assume the schedule of classes you've listed on the application is the schedule of classes you'll be taking. Colleges use this information -- called "strength of schedule" -- to see how much you like to challenge yourself, and they take that into consideration when reviewing your application.

If you send grades to colleges for classes that aren't on that list of classes, colleges are surprised -- and we're not talking the "I was hoping for a Civic for my birthday but got a Maserati" kind of surprised.

So what should you do? Follow these simple steps:

If you're thinking about changing your schedule, talk to someone. Many seniors want a schedule change because they think the class is too hard, or because a bad grade will hurt their chances of getting into college. It's sometimes better to get a slightly lower grade in a harder class than to switch your schedule -- talk this out with your counselor to get a clear picture of your options and what's best for you.

If you're looking for a long-term vacation, forget it. Other seniors want a schedule change because they've already been admitted to college, or because they think they deserve a break from all the hard work they've done in high school. Colleges don't see it that way; a challenging senior year keeps your brain focused on the challenges of college, where you learn more material at a faster pace than high school. Your "break" from studying comes in June; until then, it's time to keep working.

Before you make the change, check with your colleges. Strength of schedule is so important, some colleges want you to check with them before you make the change -- take a look at this notice from the University of North Carolina. Many colleges say strength of schedule matters more this year than ever before, so review your colleges' policies on schedule changes before you make a move; again, ask your counselor.

Don't be afraid to change if you need to. Sometimes the work you're doing in Honors English takes up the energy you need for other classes -- so one class is actually impacting your grades in all of your classes. If you come to a decision where a change is needed, make it happen and move on. Write a note to your colleges, let your counselor review it, get back to the business of being a student, and don't look back -- there's a lot to look forward to in a senior year that has the right academic balance.