Navigating high school subject selection to help you get into your dream school can be difficult. It’s hard to know what subjects to focus on, how many difficult classes to take, how to prepare yourself for what you want to study in college, et cetera. While a good GPA is essential for your college applications, the actual courses you take are also important. If you’re looking for more information on how to select your high school courses to build the best college application you can, you’re in the right place!
Choosing the right high school courses is a huge part of preparing for college. According to a study done in 2019 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, three of the most important factors in admissions decisions have to do with the courses you take in high school:
As you can see, the classes you choose to take and the grades you earn are the most important part of your college application.
However, to add one caveat, don’t worry if your high school does not offer advanced or college preparatory courses. Most institutions will ask high school guidance counselors to submit a letter describing the school’s curriculum. Instead, focus on challenging yourself within your current circumstances.
Before we cover the specifics of choosing the right subjects in high school to help you get into your dream, let’s go over some general do’s and don'ts from U.S. News & World Report.
“Create a rigorous—yet balanced—schedule.” This can be difficult, especially when you’re younger and don’t fully understand your capabilities, but it’s important to take on challenging courses while also being mindful of your limits.
“Consider future plans when selecting high school classes.” Your high school classes may only last a few months, but they will impact your future long after that. Your transcript will be a crucial part of all your college applications.
“Don’t take classes for the wrong reasons.” In high school, it might be tempting to take a class to hang out with your friends or because it’ll be an easy A. You want to take classes that will teach you a lot, look good on your transcript, and also ones that you enjoy!
“Don’t neglect to plan early.” Working with your high school guidance counselor is a great way to avoid procrastination in this area. They can help you plan which classes to take and when to take them to give you the best chance at acceptance to your dream school.
High school is a fantastic time to explore your interests and curiosities in a low-risk environment. You can take classes on things you’ve always been curious about without committing to a major or a career in that field.
It’s also a great time to diversify your interests. You may already know that you particularly enjoy writing classes, but you could also be curious about Computer Science or Physics. High school is the perfect time to see how you fare in those areas. Plus, having diverse classes on your transcript, as well as a unique variety of interests, will give you a leg up in the college application process.
Exploring new areas may seem intimidating because it forces you to move outside your comfort zone. Don’t let this stop you! Be brave, work hard, and explore new subjects that interest you in high school; your future self will thank you for it.
So, what does all this have to do with getting into your dream school? The short answer is a lot. While most colleges and universities use a holistic approach to reviewing applications, your GPA and high school transcript still play a crucial role in your application.
Most prestigious schools, including Ivy Leagues, expect you to take the most challenging classes available to you. As Princeton University says to potential applicants, “Whenever you can, challenge yourself with the most rigorous courses possible, such as honors, Advanced Placement (AP) and dual-enrollment courses. We will evaluate the International Baccalaureate (IB), A-levels or another diploma in the context of the program’s curriculum.”
This means that if you want to attend a prestigious school like Princeton, your strategy for selecting high school courses cannot be to take whatever classes you know you can get an A in. Having a great GPA is impressive, but it’s not as impressive when you’ve only taken easy classes.
That being said, you also want to cater to your own strengths. Feel free to explore interests and broaden your strengths, but you also probably have a pretty decent idea of what you’re good at. If you enjoy writing classes and you’re skilled in them, take the most challenging writing courses you can. If you want to branch out and try something new, maybe don’t start with AP Advanced Physics.
This is perhaps the most important—and most difficult—part of deciding what courses you want to take in high school to get into your dream school. You have to take the most challenging courses you can, but you also have to get good grades in all of them, and you also have to do extracurriculars, and study for your standardized tests, and…
Hold on a moment. Of course, this seems overwhelming. Being a high achiever isn’t easy! But the most important thing is to strike a balance so that you can do all of these things while still living a healthy lifestyle and not experiencing burnout. So, how do you balance everything?
Your high school guidance counselor can be a tremendous asset in this department. While it’s a good idea to push yourself, you don’t want to overwhelm yourself. If you take on too much, you may not be as successful in your classes as you hoped. By going over your plan for your high school courses and your future goals with your guidance counselor, you can get invaluable advice about balancing your courses.
Usually, your counselor will encourage you to take some easier courses alongside your more difficult courses (these can be AP courses, IB courses, classes through a local college, or anything that is just more challenging). This may seem counterintuitive to your goals, especially when you want to take the most difficult courses available to you. However, you also want to succeed in those tough courses.
When balancing your schedule, remember that you have the time to take difficult courses alongside easier courses. You have four years! So, when your guidance counselor recommends that you balance your schedule with classes of varying difficulty, you should take their advice. They will have more experience with high school schedules than you do, and if you inform them of your after high school plans early on, they can help you get on track to get into your dream school.
You can also talk to your parents when trying to figure out how to balance your schedule. While you should push your limits and see what you are capable of, your parents or others that are close to you will likely have a pretty good intuition of whether or not you are overloading yourself. By getting other opinions about your schedule and plans, you will have a better chance of striking an ideal balance of challenges.
If you are planning on majoring in the humanities, you likely already know that you need to demonstrate ambition and proficiency in areas such as History, English, and Writing. While this is true, you also need to show that you are well-rounded. This means that your transcript should also demonstrate curiosity and competence in STEM areas.
Returning to our example from Princeton University, the school expects that applicants will have completed the following courses in order to be academically prepared for such a prestigious post-secondary education:
So, even before you begin considering what classes to take to best prepare you for your future major, think about what courses will demonstrate that you are a well-rounded student who has adequate academic preparation for whatever you set out to study.
Once you have planned to take classes that fulfill requirements adjacent to the ones listed above, you can start thinking about what classes will prepare you to major in the humanities. Of course, this will be highly dependent on the classes offered by your high school.
Here are some common topics that may be available at your high school that would help you prepare to major in the humanities in college:
If you plan to major in the humanities and can explore areas like these in high school, doing so will give you the opportunity to discover the specific area that most piques your interest. Maybe you want to study the classics and be a professor some day, or maybe you want to study philosophy and prepare for law school. Taking electives like these will help you begin to figure that out!
While future STEM majors need to take different courses in high school than prospective humanities majors, their goals are actually not too different. Any high school student that plans on attending college needs to have critical thinking skills, adequate writing skills, and have enough preparation for their future college program. Though you may be tempted to focus only on preparing for your future college program, especially as a future STEM student, don’t forget about the other parts!
To see what future STEM students may want to take while in high school, let’s take a look at what the California Institute of Technology expects in terms of applicants’ academic preparedness:
While Cal Tech’s expectations are not universal for future STEM students, they can be a solid guideline for those that want to study science, math, or engineering at a prestigious school. Admissions committees will want to see that you have challenged yourself in the areas that will be fundamental to your studies; chemistry, physics, and calculus will be vital if you want to study engineering, science, or any form of mathematics in college.
However, don’t forget about balancing your schedule! That balance doesn’t just go out the window if you need to prepare to study science, math, or engineering in college. Talk to your guidance counselor early on in your high school career, and they’ll be able to help optimize your schedule so you can take all the classes you need while also offsetting them with some easier classes.
Plus, don’t forget to indulge your other interests. If you’re interested in writing, history, literature, or anything else, take classes in those areas, too! A diverse transcript shows that you are unique and ambitious.
If you take challenging classes, there’s always the chance that you won’t be as successful as you originally hoped. It may be disappointing, but don’t beat yourself up over it! A slightly lower grade in a challenging course is often more appealing to admissions committees than a perfect grade in an easy course.
While your GPA is important, the classes that you take are also crucial for your college applications. It’s hard to say whether you should prioritize one over the other. Instead, pay attention to both of them and try not to sacrifice one or the other. Don’t sacrifice your GPA for one certain class, but don’t let fear of your GPA falling keep you from taking a class that you want to take.
No, you should not only take courses in high school that are relevant to what you want to study in college. Colleges are looking for students with a variety of interests, so use your transcript to demonstrate that you are one of those students. Also, classes that are not relevant to your future major will foster skills that will be helpful for your future studies!
Deciding between IB and AP courses, if your school offers both options, can be tough. IB is a more challenging program in general, and AP courses offer specific, more difficult versions of your current classes. To decide which is the better option for you, talk to your guidance counselor about your future plans and how to best achieve them.
A lot of smaller schools don’t offer the same programs as larger schools, so you may not have the same opportunities as everyone else. Don’t let this discourage you! Most college applications have a section for you to explain what your high school is like, or they ask guidance counselors to submit a letter explaining what specific opportunities are available at your high school.
You can still show initiative through extracurriculars and projects, and you can always check with your local community to see if you can take some classes there. There are plenty of ways to supplement your application to your dream school if your school doesn’t offer AP or IB courses.
Choosing your high school courses carefully is vital for your application to your dream school. By consulting your guidance counselor and carefully planning the classes you take during high school, you can build a diverse, strong transcript and develop a variety of skills and interests that will make you a strong candidate for your dream school.