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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

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

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.

Arts

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.
Find more ideas and tips for classes at BigFuture.

Source: Expert interviews and College Board resources

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Flobby Bobby
    When should you start planning? I am only 10 years old and I am in fourth grade, is it too early to start planning?
    (40 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Jalen Mac.
    Is there anything to worry about in eight grade (about college if there is any tests they will look over)?
    (20 votes)
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    • aqualine seed style avatar for user Trish Benavides
      If you have not done so already, begin orienting yourself to social groups within your school of students that are preparing and investing for college. Even if you are not in the top classes this year and as a result you are entering the HS at this disadvantage, look to the kids that are self-motivating and placing the effort and discipline into their studies. You benefit by identifying these kids, and learning from them. It really is about time management and being consistent. If you raise your standard bar of achievement, you are on your way.
      (13 votes)
  • scuttlebug green style avatar for user Sohini
    what can you do to get ready for college when you are in middle school. what extra curricular things can you do?
    -so
    (16 votes)
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    • aqualine seed style avatar for user sunny
      There is actually a LOT you can do. The first thing is to think about what you might like to do as a career. Think about what you enjoy. If you like animals you might enjoy being a vet. If you like kids and are patient you could a teacher. Try volunteering (probably with a parent or other adult as they don't always let kids under 16 volunteer) Start off by working to make solid A's and forming good study habits, such as note taking and time management. Because this will become very important in high school and college. Also try out lots of extra curricular activities to see what you enjoy most. From soccer to music, dance, arts, writing, sports, nature, crafting, photography or building your own website and so much more. I am sure you will find something. This could give you a guide as to what classes to take. Also, do a lot of writing, It will be handy later. Try writing some stories poetry or a narrative. Last thing. Choose a country or area you love and make a project out of it. Study the culture, geography, architecture, food, music, dance, religion and customs. Or you could choose a topic you love and write a little booklet about it. Complete with a table of contents and at least 5 chapters.Have fun! And if you want, let me know what you chose and how it is going.
      (42 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user AmeliaAlice
    I'm Home schooled and don't have many opportunities to take classes outside of my home. How would I fill out my college application form without having the usual high-school background?
    (18 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Conrad Long
      If you still have a normal number of credit hours, you should have no problem. They'll just ask you to write out your classes in the years you took them along with your grades. (And ask for a bunch of personal info and essays...) I am homeschooled, and have been accepted at both places I applied.
      (15 votes)
  • ohnoes default style avatar for user Tahlia Reynolds
    I'm taking geometry in 9th grade what math will I most likely be taking in 12th
    (12 votes)
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    • spunky sam blue style avatar for user CZ
      The order usually goes (from my experience):
      Pre-Algebra
      Algebra
      Geometry
      Algebra 2
      Precalculus
      Calculus

      From that list I would say you'd likely be taking Calculus. Trigonometry is usually included with either Precalculus or Algebra 2.

      Edit: Just use the order listed in the article.
      (25 votes)
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user Rishab Chatty
    Ok so I wanted to know, are the courses I have selected for next year (9th grade) good if I want to be a science major?
    My courses are as follows:

    Beginning Composition (required)
    Honors English 9
    Spanish 1
    AP Human Geography
    Biology
    Principles of Biomedical Science
    Integrated Math 3 (equivalent of Algebra 2)
    Fitness 1
    (15 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user gabbiea1710
    I am thinking of being a science major in college. Would it be better to take extra science courses in high school but only 3 years of history; or take 4 years of history and a normal amount of science courses?
    (11 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Intel
    So it is good that I took Algebra 1 in 7th Grade and now am going to start Geometry in 8th?
    (8 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user mish.armstrong
    Does Khan Academy have accreditation? If not how difficult would it be to get? A good way for you to bring in some money and better serve the people who like to use your courses would be to offer credit for your courses. The courses are free, but if someone wants to get transcript credit you sign up and pay an amount. Other online courses and schools are still way behind you when it comes to the quality and simplicity. Also many of the online schools don't allow one to take individual courses only. Even fewer allow for self paced learning.
    (17 votes)
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  • hopper jumping style avatar for user Shawn Pereira
    Would learning at Khan Academy count as "challenging yourself" in case AP courses are not available in your high school?
    (10 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jonas Aqua
      I think you can write it in your essay, that you liked to expand your knowledge in your free time with sites like Khanacademy or even books, if you have some. But the jury won't punish you, because if they'll know your school doesn't offer AP or IB courses, they'll set the bar like your school can offer. Hope this could help!
      (13 votes)