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How to Choose Your High School Classes With College in Mind

Choosing high school classes you're passionate about and that'll benefit you on college applications is crucial. Here's how to create the best schedule!

Colleges view high school curricula with considerable importance, with top criteria including grades in college prep courses and other higher-level courses. So why do curricula matter? While you may want to choose your college based on athletic teams or proximity to the beach, ultimately, you’re going to college to continue your academic journey. You have four more years of academics ahead of you, and your future college wants to know that you can handle the rigor of their curriculum. Admission committees will look at the strength of your high school’s curriculum and also if you took advantage of the challenging classes that were offered. Here’s how you can and should be planning your high school class schedule with college admission in mind. 

Start planning early

Ideally, the conversation of choosing thoughtful courses at each grade level should start in middle school. When I talk to students early in their high school careers, I ask them what classes they want to take during high school, and we map them out. An easy way to do this yourself is to obtain a copy of your school’s course catalog. It will list every single course and/or pathway your high school offers, plus any required prerequisite classes. Make notes of all the required subjects as well as those that seem interesting to you; maybe you want to make sure you can incorporate orchestra into your schedule each year or complete a marketing pathway. Identify your priorities and see where everything fits. 

Look at college requirements

While your teachers and school counselor will ensure you complete the high school courses you need, some colleges have admission requirements beyond your graduation requirements. For example, the University of California system requires students to take one credit of fine arts; other colleges recommend taking three credits of a world language, but your high school likely only requires you to take two. These expectations can also vary by program of study. Engineering students should typically take calculus and physics, whereas an English major may not have that same expectation.

Related: High School Classes to Make You a Competitive College Applicant

Choose challenging but appropriate courses

Think about your current workload. How much homework do you have each night? Do you have time for extracurricular activities and/or hobbies? How is your sleep schedule? Now, imagine what your obligations will be for the next year. Are you planning to be president of a club? Will you be getting a part-time job? How much time will these additional responsibilities take? If you feel like your workload isn’t too challenging and your extra duties won’t overload you, consider adding a rigorous course to your schedule. Maybe you really enjoy math; try stepping up to AP Calculus. Or maybe you want to pursue an extra science course at a local college through a dual-enrollment program

On the other hand, if you feel your current workload is too much or your additional responsibilities will put you over the top, consider taking a step down in one of your subject areas. Do you hate reading? AP English Literature may not be the best class for you. Colleges don’t want to see all A’s in lower-level courses, as it shows you aren’t challenging yourself enough—but they also don’t want to see C’s in AP courses since that could indicate you may not be ready for college-level work. Strike a balance, play to your strengths, and don’t be afraid to take a little risk if you think you can handle it. 

Related: Insider Insight on AP Courses: Which Classes Are Best to Take?

Your entire senior year matters!

So often, I work with students who accelerate their curriculum early on. They take high school courses while still in middle school and college courses throughout high school. But by senior year, they hit a wall, and it resulted in them only wanting to take their graduation requirements to get by. Some schools allow reduced schedules, and I’ve seen some students who only take two courses senior year. While that may be fine for graduation, selective colleges typically want to see all five academic subject areas each year of high school, regardless of how many credits you took in middle school. Students argue, “If I’m applying for Early Action, the college won’t even see my grades.” While that’s true, they will still see your schedule. A lack of rigor during your senior year could indicate to colleges that you aren’t as serious about your studies as other students. You could potentially lose an acceptance if your foundation doesn’t appear as strong as a student who chose to take an additional math course in their last semester. 

Related: Our Best Senior Year Survival Advice

Ideally, your high school classes should prepare you for college, so it’s normal for them to be challenging. However, they shouldn’t be so overwhelming that you can’t keep up. Evaluate your current schedule and carefully consider your options for next year. Don’t hesitate to talk to your teachers and ask for recommendations; they can provide valuable insight since they know your performance record in certain subject areas. Remember, it’s never too late to adjust or try something new.

Planning to make a high school schedule that challenges you academically? We can help keep you on track with the advice in our Majors and Academics section!

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About Allison Grandits

Allison Grandits

Allison Grandits is an educational consultant and the founder of Grand Fit Educational Consulting. She works one-on-one with students to help them take ownership of the college process and discover schools that reward students for their hard work. Allison received her BS in Psychology and MEd in Professional School Counseling from the University of Georgia, as well as a post-graduate certificate in College Consulting from the University of California, Irvine. You can find Allison on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Pinterest.


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