How to Choose Your High School Classes

Tall pile of academic books

In the United States, we don’t have one uniform system of education. We have at least as many different kinds of approaches–and requirements– as we have states in the Union. Just think about the variety. That goes for grade school and high school as well as higher education.

This kind of variety offers creative outcomes but also confusion about what’s required, what’s expected, and what choices to make. Not to mention, inequitable opportunities because some students not only have more choices, but more information about how to make choices in their best educational and future interests.

An earlier blog post gave one example of this, where high school graduation requirements often do not match what colleges expect to see in their applicants.

In this post, here are some considerations for choosing your high school classes. Remember what I wrote about variety? That means that there is no one, uniform list of classes for everyone. Take these recommendations in the context of your high school and how you see your future path.

If you are in ninth or tenth grade, college seems far away. You’re probably in a new and larger school, and suddenly you have a lot more interesting classes than your middle school or junior high. Cooking? Video? Ceramics? The classes that are called “honors” or “advanced” can sound intimidating. First, try to think about whether college is part of your future plans. (And remember that almost all future well-paying jobs will require either a two-year or a four-year degree.)

So, the first and foundational recommendation is to take the high school classes that will give you the most college options for after high school. You don’t want to realize as a high school senior that you didn’t take the classes in ninth or tenth grade that colleges expect.

Do you take an easier class where you will earn an A or a more difficult class and risk getting a B? My recommendation is to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. You can always drop back into a less rigorous math or science class if it’s really too much, but it’s much harder to move into a more rigorous class if you haven’t studied the prior material. The teacher is at the heart of your educational experience and often the best teachers are the ones teaching those harder classes.

Does taking a foreign language class really matter? Yes, it does. There are practical reasons in our global society to study Spanish or French or Chinese or Arabic. Most selective colleges require at least a few years of foreign language study even though your high school may not require it. Don’t get tripped up by this disconnect! Foreign languages also help you understand English, and writing, and other cultures. C‘est une très bonne idée.

How many AP classes should you take, and when? The term, “AP” stands for Advanced Placement and the curriculum for these classes is set by the College Board, not your school. AP has become shorthand for a rigorous course, and doing well on the AP exam may earn you introductory course credit at your college. But again, these practices vary from high school to high school, and AP exam scores may or may not earn you college credit. You may be at a high school that does not offer AP classes and instead offers “honors” or “advanced” classes. Colleges know this. Keep a sense of balance in your life–and sanity–but show with your class choices that you are willing to challenge yourself and put in effort.

Do I need to take math and science all four years? Yes. I’m not going to even qualify this response. Even if you think you are bound for literature, or music, or business, you will benefit from this foundation. Colleges want to see breadth in your class schedule each year and the more selective colleges will require it. Be aware that classes your high school may count as math or science may not be counted that way by the college. For example, statistics or computer science may not count as a math class. If there are colleges you are interested in, look to see what their policies are.

If you are a top athlete, do you need to take advanced classes and do well in them? Most of us are not bound for the pros. Let’s say you have such exceptional talent to be offered a Division I scholarship, or preferential admission to a Division II or III college. Injuries happen. Careers last a lot longer than your peak athletic years. Take the advanced classes. It’s the game plan for life that you need to prepare for, not whether you get admitted into a college.

Now, you know yourself that some subjects come easier than others, and colleges do not share identical requirements. It’s back to that comment about variety.

What kind of college do you want to attend? Colleges will describe on their websites the “typical” admitted student in terms of test scores and high school classes taken. Pay attention to that. What majors do you think you’ll be interested in? Is it a math/science focused major, like engineering? Then the math and science courses you take will really matter.


The choices you make in your high school years should show how you engage, take risks, and are eager to learn. What is your purpose behind your choices? Yes, you really need to think beyond what the school requires; what is your passion and how are your class choices indicating that?

A final recommendation: Don’t coast in your senior year. It may be tempting, but it’s the year before launching into college-level work. Your college freshman self will thank your high school senior self for being prepared. Not just the academic knowledge, but those all-important skills of keeping focused, organized, and on top of your work. And, colleges want to see that you are taking seriously the rigors of college work—so coasting in the year before you start college isn’t a good sign to the college.

Yes, keep personal balance and sanity. Use those one or two elective slots in your senior schedule to take the ceramics or the guitar classes. But be sure to maintain breadth in your courses: science, math, English, history or social science.

Liberal arts colleges, especially, want to see engagement across the liberal arts. (That means science, math, English, history or social science.)

You are not just taking high school classes to get into college. You are taking them to prepare for life after high school, wherever and whatever that might be.