Selecting high school classes in preparation for college

Most colleges consider your high school transcript to be the single most important factor in your college application.  Though taking (or not taking) any specific class will not determine the outcome of your college applications, there are certain general guidelines for selecting classes during high school to put you on the most straightforward path towards admission at a more selective college.
First, you should challenge yourself with difficult coursework and then do well in these courses.  Look for opportunities to take honors, AP, or IB courses which are recognized as offering a rigorous experience to students.  Also consider dual-enrolling at a nearby community college or college during your junior or senior year of high school, earning college credit while taking challenging courses that are not offered in your high school.
In addition to taking challenging courses and doing well, it’s important to take the right mix of classes.  More selective colleges prefer high school students who take at least five core academic classes most semesters (math, english, history, science, foreign language), in addition to a few classes in the arts.  Let’s take a look at these subjects in more detail to prioritize potential courses:


Math is a subject that builds on itself over the years, becoming increasingly complex as you increase your skills.  Most colleges want students to have at least 3 years of high school math, though more selective colleges prefer 4 years.  Prioritize taking several of the following courses:
  • Algebra 1
  • Geometry
  • Algebra 2
  • Trigonometry
  • Pre-calculus & Calculus
Begin with Algebra 1 and Geometry, often considered the building blocks of higher level math and science classes.  Wrap up with Calculus, the highest level of math offered by many high schools and often considered the gold standard of pre-college math preparation.

English / Language Arts

Given the substantial reading and writing requirements of higher education, virtually all colleges expect you to take 4 years of English.

History / Social Studies

History courses offer insight into the world around you, and they also improve your critical reading and writing abilities.  College-bound students often take a minimum of 3 years of history courses, prioritizing the following:
  • US History
  • US Government
  • World History
  • Geography
Once these standard history courses are completed, college-bound students often choose to take an additional class in an area of history specific to the expertise of instructors in their particular high school.


Science teaches you how to analyze information and apply theories to the real world.  Most colleges prefer that students take at least 3 years of laboratory science classes, while more selective colleges prefer 4 years.  Some specific classes to prioritize:
  • Physical Science or Geology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics

Foreign Language

In an increasingly globalized world, having some basic mastery in a language besides English is highly encouraged as part of your high school studies.  Most colleges prefer that you take at least 2 full years of the same foreign language, though many students choose to take 3-4 years.  It is not advisable to switch between multiple languages; instead, it’s best to choose a language of focus your freshman year and study it deeply throughout high school.


Though not considered core academic courses, classes in the arts broaden your high school experience and give you the opportunity to build a skillset outside of typical academics.  Many colleges recommend one or two semesters in the arts, though students who have a particular passion for a subject often choose to pursue it throughout their 4 years in high school.

Source: Expert interviews and College Board resources