Choosing classes in high school is a major milestone in your academic career. Those honors and AP courses you may be dreading? It’s no secret that they will earn you major brownie points in the admission marathon. While everyone is inclined to express bias toward a certain subject or two, you should keep in mind that stepping outside your comfort zone can prove immensely beneficial as well. It’s also good to note that no one can tell you exactly what to study: only you can determine what courses will be beneficial to your future. Still, here are a few tips on what to study each year of high school in order to boost your applications and improve your college competitiveness.
First year of high school: Get an idea of your future
Freshman year can either be a laidback year or a trial period. If you feel like you already know which career you’d like to pursue in college, take the courses that will be beneficial in building a foundation. For example, a student who would like to go into a science career would benefit from taking advanced courses in sciences and mathematics. If you don’t have an idea yet as to which career you’d like to enter, try a “sampling” of each subject. If you feel comfortable enough, take honors courses. If you find yourself doing well in certain subjects, then make a note for your sophomore year. Remember: Stepping outside your comfort zone, even a tiny bit, can open your eyes to new experiences! Tailor your elective courses to this as well by opting to take finance, art, or other non-traditional courses. You could find that you have a niche in film studies or computer programming or something else entirely.
Sophomore year: Zero in on your interests
Sophomore year is the time to start getting your mind in college mode. While most high schools typically have AP courses available to juniors and seniors, there may be a few courses open to sophomores. If you find a course you took freshman year interested you enough to learn more, don’t be afraid to talk to the teacher to see what would be involved with an AP course. However, this is really a time to focus on taking honors courses. They are typically more fast-paced and in-depth than the base classes. Use what you learned about your interests from the year before to choose your schedule. Reflect on your experiences, grades, and overall feelings to zero in on what would be most beneficial to you.
Another tip: Even if your school requires only one year of a foreign language, take the initiative to push yourself to complete more courses of the same language throughout high school. Yes, that first year of a language can seem like a drag, but you never know what you will experience beyond that! And language classes always look good on a college application.
Junior year: Find a friendly mix
Junior year is when it all matters. College admission committees will really hone in on your junior year transcript, as you’ll be in the middle of your senior year by the time admission decisions are released. Not to mention, this is when you'll most likely be taking the SAT or ACT as well. In other words: Make junior year the best and brightest you can. Tailor your schedule to your strengths and interests. Don’t take as many AP courses as you possibly can—that's not impressive to anyone. It’s better to focus on courses that resonate with you rather than stretch yourself too thin and wind up burnt out by the time the AP exams roll out.
Senior year: Say no to senioritis
Despite the whispers you hear, senior year is not a time to slack off. Admission counselors can spot someone who is truly ready for college from a mile away simply based on their senior course load. Build upon the AP courses you took junior year, and if you feel ready, upgrade a previous honors course to AP status. Choose electives that complement your AP courses and potential future major if possible. I was someone who wanted to “sample” subjects freshman year, so I took honors courses in every subject up until sophomore year. From there, I zeroed in on English and history to take AP courses, and I kept my interest in math and science alive through honors courses in those subjects.
Choosing your courses is extremely important in high school. Don’t feel down if you find that an honors course isn’t working out for you. Certain subjects may click with you better than others and will become your academic strong points. High school is a time of exploration, so use your time wisely to help guide you to the college education that will be most rewarding to you.
If you're the type of student who likes to be on top of your planning, check out Smart College Prep Steps for All 4 Years of High School for a great comprehensive guide.