High School Graduation Requirements and College Admission Requirements are Not the Same

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As a high school student, you may be selecting your classes based on what your school district or school requires for graduation. High school graduation is the most important goal when you are in high school and so it is understandable that school counselors and parents may focus on those requirements.

Be aware, however, that these requirements may not be what is required of colleges for admission. States set the minimum requirements for public schools in their state; different states may have different requirements. Individual school districts or individual public high schools may set their own additional requirements. Private schools set their own graduation requirements.

On the college side, you may see more requirements in different subject areas or for more years of study. In general, the more selective the college, the more requirements you will see. The course requirements may be communicated as “guidelines” or “expectations” or as the typical course preparation for an accepted student. So a college may grant exceptions in specific cases but the guidelines should be carefully considered.

If you are a high school student and are thinking about college, you should look at college requirements early and realize that you will need to focus on academic classes every year of high school: math, English, science, foreign language, social studies, and often some fine arts. All of the elective offerings are tempting, but should not take the place of core academic classes.

For example, public high school graduation requirements in Wisconsin are described in state statute. Here is a summary:

English 4 credits
Social Studies 3 credits 
Math 3 credits
Science 3 credits 
Physical Education 1.5 credits
Health Education 0.5 credits
The state superintendent shall encourage school boards to require an additional 8.5 credits selected from any combination of vocational education, foreign languages, fine arts and other courses.


The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s website gives more detail about what they want to see in a high school transcript, and it is different from the state high school graduation requirements. Here is what UW-Madison expects an incoming college freshman to have studied in high school:

Subject Area Years
English 4
Math * 4
Social Studies 3-4
Science 3-4
Single Foreign Language ** 3-4
Additional Academic/Fine Arts 2
Total Units 19-22

* Math requirement includes at least one year each of algebra, geometry, and advanced math, or an integrated sequence of courses. If you take any of these courses in middle school, that will count toward the requirement. Courses that will not fulfill this requirement include: statistics, business math, and computer classes.

** Students who are not native English speakers can satisfy the foreign language requirement if they were educated in their native language through grade eight.

If you are just looking at these requirements as a senior in high school, you can see that catching up on one or more years of foreign language or math study is just about impossible.

That doesn’t mean that college is impossible, because not every college has these requirements.

The lesson is to know what subjects a college requires–and for how long, and to prioritize academic classes. 

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