Mahir Jethanandani's California high school offered only a few classes related to business and finance – disciplines he was interested in exploring. So, he turned to massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offered through Coursera to learn on his own.
"It came with an extension of knowledge and fundamental concepts that I felt improved my understanding of subjects that I claimed that I loved" but didn't have much exposure to, says the 18-year-old. MOOCs also led him to explore other disciplines he was curious about, including law and neuroscience.
Now a rising sophomore at the University of California—Berkeley, Jethanandani plans to triple major in economics, electrical engineering and computer science, and statistics.
MOOCs have been controversial, but these online classes enable curious high schoolers to explore a range of disciplines for free without having to commit to staying enrolled, or for a low cost if they want a verified certificate.-
Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, an education consulting company in New York City, says a high school student's decision to take MOOCs for credit versus auditing for free varies depending on his or her individual commitments and goals.
Here are three reasons high schoolers should consider enrolling in MOOCs before they start the college application process.
1. Gauge your interest in potential majors and careers: This is particularly true for students whose high schools offer few courses in certain disciplines, as was the case for Jethanandani.
Deborah Davis, president and founder of the Davis Education & Career Consultants, LLC, says many colleges ask applicants what they want to major in, but upon being admitted, it might be difficult to switch schools – say, from business to engineering.
Like extracurriculars and internships, she says, MOOCs give students a better idea of what they want to – or don't want to – pursue in the future.
"They want to make sure that if they're investing in a particular college or a particular career direction, it's going to make sense for them," Davis says.
2. Gain exposure to courses and teaching at the college level: High schoolers who enroll in MOOCs, which are often taught by real university professors, can get a glimpse of the quality of the teaching at a school and learn about specific faculty, experts say.
For Jethanandani, MOOCs also offered insight into what undergraduate-level courses entail in terms of teaching style and rigor.
"It gave me a realistic understanding of what it means to be an economics major, and what it means to be a statistics major, what it means to be a computer science major," Jethanandani says.
3. Demonstrate your passions to college admissions officers: A high school student going out of his or her way to pursue scholarly interests with MOOCs – regardless of whether they plan to definitely pursue those fields in college – can exhibit intellectual curiosity and initiative, experts say.
"That's where I think it might be useful: in showing you've developed an interest, that you're going beyond and above what's offered at your school and exposing yourself to new things," says Ralph Becker, a college counselor in California – though a MOOC probably won't totally "close the deal," he says.
Stu Schmill, dean of admissions and student financial services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says high school students shouldn't sign up for MOOCs for the sole purpose of including them on an application.
"We don't want them to contort themselves and pursue things that are not interesting to them simply because they think it's going to give them an advantage," he says.
Students should list specific MOOCs on an application if they complete them from start to finish, says Cohen, of Ivywise – though Davis says there's room for students to mention what they learned from partially-completed MOOCs in essays, for instance.
Applicants can mention MOOCs in the "additional information" section of the Common Application,experts say, or in written components asking what they want to major in and why.
Jethanandani did the former, and sprinkled what he learned throughout a few of his essays. He's still participating in MOOCs while in college.
"It was fantastic exposure," he says. "I could not have fallen more in love with taking classes online."
Schmill says he's seen more high school students list MOOCs on their applications in the past few years. It's not uncommon, he says, but not too prevalent either, and students don't typically use them in place of high school classes.
"They're really one of many activities that students can do to enrich their learning, and that's really how we look at them," he says.