BS/MD programs often tell students that they want to see the most challenging curriculum. But, what exactly does that mean?
The problem with defining what is the most challenging curriculum is that it varies depending on the high school that the student attends. If your high school offers 20 AP classes and you take two, that is probably not going to be viewed as the most challenging curriculum. But if your high school only offers two AP classes and you take both, that is a challenging curriculum. Does that mean that you have to take 20 AP classes if your school offers that many? No, but you do need to take a reasonable number of AP classes.
OK, so what is reasonable? While it depends on the school and the student, my typical BS/MD student has between 6 and 12 AP classes by the time they graduate.
Does it matter what subjects you take? Yes, it may. Ideally, highly selective colleges, including BS/MD programs, like to see four years of each of the core subjects: English, math, science, history/social and a single foreign language. It is not uncommon to see BS/MD students with AP chemistry, AP biology and AP calculus. But having AP classes in non-science and math classes shows the breadth of your accomplishments and will often be important to someone looking to see if you have the most challenging classes. That doesn’t mean that you have to have AP classes in each of the core subjects although having this kind of background will almost always look very strong.
There is not just one way to have the strongest curriculum. You might have 10 students from a single high school, all of whom are viewed as having the most challenging curriculum, even though none of them have taken the exact same classes as other students. And the student with 9 AP classes does not necessarily have a more challenging curriculum than the student from the same high school with 7 AP classes. Why? Because some AP classes are considered to be more challenging than others. Moreover, there are some classes that aren’t AP classes but still very challenging. Does your school offer multivariable calculus? That isn’t an AP class but is generally considered more challenging than AP Calc.
The timing of when you take the challenging classes might make a difference but generally isn’t a big factor. I see this topic come up in two situations. The first is that most high schools don’t offer AP classes until junior year although some make AP classes available to freshman and sophomores. You certainly look like you are taking challenging classes if you have these early AP’s. But you aren’t going to be more competitive than a student at a high school that doesn’t allow AP classes until junior year. Colleges are not going to penalize you for the way your high school handles matters like this.
The second way I see the timing issue come up is when a student takes a number of challenging courses early in their high school years and leave required classes like phy-ed and health to senior year. Since they are often required for graduation the student can look like they aren’t taking challenging classes as a senior. This isn’t ideal, but colleges are looking at the student’s whole transcript, not just senior year. If the student packed their early years with strong academic classes, having an easier senior year will not be a detriment.
I have been talking about AP classes throughout this post but I also must mention IB classes. In my experience, IB classes are considered by the colleges as at least as strong as AP classes and having a full IB diploma is almost always recognized by itself as the strongest curriculum.
There are also a few very strong high schools, often private schools, that do not have AP classes at all because they believe that the AP curriculum restricts the depth of the subject they wish to treat. If you are at one of these schools, you will often have a challenging curriculum just taking the required courses to graduate. Having the most challenging may be significantly more difficult since these schools tend to have a number of very strong students.