On average, American seniors headed for college do no more than an hour of homework a night. However, students at L.A. County’s most challenging high schools can expect an average of two to three hours a night. The emphasis in these schools is not enrollment at just any college but at institutions looking for students who want to do their academic best. The most engaging high schools place great value on writing, the weakest part of the modern American high school curriculum. They require special writing projects and extra practice to prepare for AP and IB exams that emphasize essay questions graded by human beings. Many of the county’s best 75 high schools dare to assign long research papers, something rare for public schools in this country. On top of that, extracurricular activities—the more sought-after colleges seek students with serious involvement in one or two—can add significantly to a student’s schedule. These high schools also have counselors trained to underscore a student’s unique academic accomplishments in their recommendations.
Because selective colleges pay careful attention to the number of AP or IB courses and tests on a student’s transcript, it is important to enroll in at least three. But students at truly challenging schools will often sign up for more—not only to strengthen their transcripts but because those are the most stimulating courses and the ones their friends are taking.