What Courses Should I Take in High School?

Back in the olden days, there was a standard school day, a singular college prep curriculum and very limited “electives.” It made the decisions about what courses to take pretty simple and there weren't many ways to go wrong.

Not so in the 21st century. Now, there are multiple structures for school days, multiple college prep curricula, and abundant choices for requirements and electives. Honestly, many high school course listings are indistinguishable from the course catalogs for many small liberal arts colleges. Not surprisingly, the decisions about what courses to take are much more complex and you can definitely go way wrong. How wrong? Total derailment – by that we mean taking yourself completely off track for being admitted to the college of your dreams. Whoa, really?  Really.

That’s why we spend a good portion of our spring advising students (starting in 7th grade) about which courses to choose for the following year. As we work through their choices, we've discovered that there are 7 guidelines we use with almost every student. We're happy to share them with you.

Guideline #1:  Understand the choices available to you. 

You can’t make good choices without information. So get to work and do a full investigation into the choices available to you. Start with actually reading the materials produced by your school. Move on to speaking with your guidance counselor, teachers, and other students. By combining reading with a good grapevine, you’ll have the information you need to make your decisions. 

You’ll know you understand the choices available to you when you can answer these questions fully and accurately:

  • How many class periods do you have in your schedule?
  • What courses do you have to take to meet the graduation requirements at your high school? 
  • What courses are offered as electives? 
  • What do you have to do to be eligible for honors, AP, IB, or other “enriched” courses? Are there any rules that limit the number of AP or honors courses you can take in a given year?
  • Who is considered the best teacher in each subject area?
  • What courses are prerequisites for the courses you want to take your junior and senior years?
  • Are there any scheduling conflicts that force you to make certain choices (e.g. you can't take Math with Ms. Parsons if you want to take English with Mr. Levy)?
  • Does your high school offer you opportunities to take courses elsewhere, e.g. local community colleges or online?

Guideline #2:  Take 5 academic solids each year.

Even though there are now multiple college prep curricula out there, colleges are steadfast in their expectations of the course work high school graduates will have completed (and knowledge they will have acquired) before they begin college. Here is the “can’t go wrong” college prep curriculum – it will prepare you for every college from the least selective to the most selective:

  • 4 Years of English
  • 4 Years of the Same Foreign Language
  • 4 Years of Math (through at least Precalculus)
  • 4 Years of Science (including Chemistry, Biology, Physics)
  • 4 Years of History/Social Studies (including U.S. History and World History)

So before you start exploring choices for electives, do a quick audit to make sure you have the 5 academic solids covered. Because these are pretty much non-negotiable. You need them both to get into AND to succeed in college. 

Of course, this guideline constrains your choices. But no sympathy here. You need to keep yourself focused on the primary reason you are enrolled in a college prep curriculum in the first place — to prepare for college!  If you have a different long-term goal, then by all means consider a different set of core courses. But if you want to get into and graduate from college, this is what you should be learning in high school.

One note for those who attend high schools that aren’t really designed for college prep: If you CAN’T take these classes at your high school, then look into transferring into another high school where you can or getting permission to take these classes at another high school, a local community college, or online. (In our opinion, online should be last resort because I believe that there is value in the interpersonal interaction of a classroom.) If there is simply no way to structure a college prep curriculum for yourself, then do the best you can and accept that you may have to do some pre-college studies before you are eligible for admission to a four-year university.

Another note for international students: High school curricula vary greatly worldwide and are generally designed to suit the needs of a particular higher education system. So unless you are in an American school, you probably will not take U.S. History. These kinds of variances in curricula are understood by admissions officers and can be accommodated.  However, if you are serious about attending college in the U.S., it is particularly important that you pay attention to Guideline #7 — seeing your courses through the eyes of an admissions officer.

Guideline #3:  Math must be taken and passed in the regular school year, every year. If possible, make it through Calculus by the time you graduate.

Math is pivotal to your future. This is true for anyone who aspires to graduate from college in the U.S. and it is double-triple true for anyone who aspires to be admitted to and graduate from any of the 400+ selective colleges in the U.S. Why do we say this? The data. First, you'll increase your performance on the standardized tests if you learn your math. A study of 2010 SAT test takers showed that students who successfully completed precalculus or calculus had test scores higher than the mean on all three sections of the test (that's right — higher reading, math, AND writing scores) while students who only completed Algebra II had test scores lower than that mean on all three sections of the test. Second, you'll be more likely to graduate from college if you successfully complete more math in high school. One of many studies on this topic showed that only 34% of those who stop with Algebra II go on to graduate from college, but 55% of those who make it through Precalculus go on to graduate from college and a whopping 73% of those who make it through Calculus in high school go on to graduate from college. We hope we've convinced you — whatever you do, prepare for success and successfully complete as much math as possible in high school.  

One note: math is not a subject that generally lends itself to compressed instruction, so be cautious about trying to accelerate your math by taking summer school.  

Guideline #4:  Structure your schedule so that it is challenging, but not overwhelming.

News flash: School is supposed to be hard work. Furthermore, people, in general, find any activity more interesting and satisfying if it poses a bit of a challenge. So embrace the notion that your high school schedule should be challenging. If you understand every single concept right away or can get away without doing homework or can ace a test without studying, then your course load is not challenging enough. Step it up -- take a higher level course or take more courses. But if you are frequently lost in class, spend hours on homework every night and still are behind, or can't sustain a solid B or better average, then your course load is too challenging. Drop back to a lower level course or drop a course. If you are already taking the regular level courses and a minimum load, then you need tutoring pronto. You've missed something along the way and now is the time to get caught up.

So how does this guideline generally translate into real life course schedules? If you are an "above average" student with a typically busy teenage life who also gets a reasonable amount of sleep (in other words, you have a healthy, balanced life), it usually means that you end up with a schedule that has 2-3 courses at the advanced level (AP, Honors, etc.) and 2-3 courses at a regular level.  

Guideline #5:  Think beyond the GPA and leverage your course work -- go for two-fers and three-fers whenever possible.

We find that many high school students use one criterion to decide which course to choose among the several offered: What grade will I get and how will that grade impact my GPA and/or class ranking? This is particularly true if grades in certain classes are weighted. Students invariably choose the course that is most likely to result in plumping up the GPA. Now many in the college counseling world come completely unglued when students confess that this is their decision making criterion. We're not in that camp, largely because we think it is hypocritical to evaluate students on their grades and then be appalled that students try to maximize their grades. So it is A-OK with us for students to exhibit some strategic impulse when it comes to choosing courses, but we want to encourage them to think beyond the GPA and leverage their course work for more than the easier A in junior year. Go for two-fers and three-fers whenever possible!

What do we mean by that? Let's say that you could take AP World History or AP Government in your junior year. You're inclined to go with AP Government because you think it will be the easier A, but you are pretty sure you could maintain your current GPA and class rank with a B in AP World History. If you don't think beyond your GPA, you'll opt for AP Government, because why not boost that GPA a bit?

But here's where two-fer and three-fer thinking becomes relevant. You know you want to apply to a college that requires 2 SAT Subject Tests. If you take AP World History, you've prepared yourself for the SAT Subject Test in World History at the same time -- a two-fer. There isn't an SAT Subject Test that corresponds to AP Government, so it doesn't offer a two-fer.  And then you do a smidgeon more research and learn that the same college that requires the SAT Subject Tests allows you to "place out" of the general education requirement to take a course in World History if you complete AP World History and get a score of 3 or more on your AP World History exam. No corresponding advantage for taking AP Government. Now AP World History is a three-fer! So now what do you choose AP World History or AP Government? You know the answer.  

Guideline #6:  With electives, follow the teacher, not the subject.

Often we find that students confront a tough choice when they have to choose between taking an elective course with a great teacher in a subject that they aren't really excited by or a course with an okay teacher in a subject they love. Our advice is always the same: follow the teacher, not the subject. Great teachers make you a better student and learner. They coax you into better thinking, stimulate you to approach information differently, and inspire you to do more than you ever thought you could. These are things you can't do for yourself. These are the things that make attending a class worthwhile. And if following the teacher means that you have to assign yourself some outside reading or seek out an after-school or summer program to stay current with a subject you love, that's absolutely fine. In fact, that kind of independent pursuit of knowledge is exactly the kind of thing a student destined for admission to and graduation from a selective college does.  

Guideline #7:  Analyze your schedule through the eyes of a college admissions officer at the colleges you aspire to attend and see if that pushes you one way or another.

One thing that most high school students simply don't understand is that college admissions officers at different colleges will analyze a transcript differently because each of those colleges will have their own preferences regarding college preparatory curriculum. Visit the websites of the colleges on your list and read what the admissions says about what they prefer. You'll find some subtle but important distinctions. In fact, even colleges with the same "general focus" and level of "selectivity" will vary in their recommendations.  

For example, three of the "top" math/science focused colleges in the U.S. look for slightly different things — MIT wants biology in addition to chemistry and physics, but Caltech and Harvey Mudd don't include biology in their recommendations. All three expect calculus, but Harvey Mudd offers an alternative path if you won't complete calculus by senior year.  None of them recommend as many courses in history/social science or foreign language as I've suggested above because they are ALL ABOUT THE SCIENCE AND MATH. So how will the admissions officers at each of these colleges analyze your transcript if you decide to take a third year of Latin instead of doubling up on science and taking both Honors Physics and AP Environmental Science? Easy, right? They'd all say take the second science.  

But what if your choice were between taking a second year of Chemistry or a year of Biology? That one is a bit tougher. It seems that at MIT, the admissions officers won't be pleased, but the admissions officers at Caltech and Harvey Mudd would be fine with it.  (Of course, they'd all probably be happiest if you could take BOTH the second year of Chemistry and Biology, but that may not be your choice.) See why researching college preferences now can help you decide? If you want MIT, Caltech or Harvey Mudd more than life itself, your choices now matter!  

But what if you don't know exactly which colleges, but you do know you want to be competitive at the MOST selective colleges. I'd encourage you to get on the web and do a little research — take a sampling. In general, you will find that the most selective colleges expect that you will take the most challenging course load available at your high school AND do well in them all. But remember the advice above about "challenging, but not overwhelming."  

"Most challenging" usually doesn't translate into 5 APs or Honors; it usually translates into 2-3 APs as noted above. But don't take our word for it. Go visit the college counselor at your high school and ask him/her how he/she will rate your proposed schedule. Why ask the college counselor? Well, because he/she will be asked on his/her recommendation to rate your course selections and will be given the opportunity to rate it from "most demanding" to "not demanding." If you are aspiring to the most selective colleges, your schedule should elicit the "most demanding" rating from the college counselor. So ask him/her NOW before you finalize the schedule. If the counselor tells you your schedule will be "more demanding" but not "most demanding," ask him/her what it would take to move to a "most demanding" rating. Then consider adjusting your schedule accordingly.  

But again, REMEMBER the "challenging, not overwhelming" guideline. Getting C's in the "most demanding" courses gets you nowhere -- you won't be competitive at the most selective colleges and you will have damaged your chances at the other 375+ selective colleges where As and Bs in a "more demanding" courses are competitive, but Cs (even in the harder courses) aren't.  

One final note.

We have discovered that many students, parents, high school teachers or high school guidance counselors take issue with one or more of these guidelines. They typically object that a particular guideline will dissuade the student from pursuing the "best educational path." Without even debating the definition of the "best educational path," we have two responses to that feedback.

First, we're not trying to steer students along the "best educational path." We are giving students help navigating the best path to a particular destination: admission to a selective college. If that's not the goal, then these guidelines won't be as relevant or applicable.

Second, we firmly believe that all students have both the right and responsibility to determine their own destinations and select their own paths. So we've got no problem with students deciding that they don't really want to be admitted to a selective college, or that they don't want to follow the path we suggest. But we also believe that these choices should be INFORMED choices, and that's why we're putting these guidelines out there.

Comments or questions?

Do you have you own dilemma regarding what courses to take?  Post your quandry and we'll give you our best advice about how to decide.