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How to Choose High School Classes

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: January 25, 2021

Table of Contents

How to choose high school classes

The high school classes that you choose are the most important factor in the college admissions process. Doing your best work in these classes shows that you’re ready to excel in college. Grades are the best indicator of future success at the university level. With so much riding on your class choices, it’s important to choose them wisely.

As with everything, the program you choose will depend on a variety of factors, such as college choices, career aspirations, personal interests, and skill level to name a few. With respect to colleges – which is a question students ask all the time — will this look good to so and so college? – I would suggest that you always consult with the specific college for guidance on minimum admissions requirements. For example, the University of Miami expects will differ from what a local community college may be looking for.   For this post, I will go over general principles you can follow to assure you demonstrate a strong foundation for whatever school you’re applying to.

In summary, here’s what you should aim to achieve when choosing high school classes:

  • Graduation Requirements: Does the class meet basic requirements?
  • Academic rigor: Is the class hard enough for my abilities?
  • Breadth: Does the class contribute to a range of classes that show my interest in learning?
  • Scholastic Achievement: Can I achieve an A in the class
  • Career Connection: Does the class introduce or progress my journey into a career pathway?

Plan the whole four years

When choosing classes, I know that many students wait until the last minute each year, between January and February, to plan their courses for the upcoming school year. But the best thing to do is as early as eight grade, before starting high school, or as soon as you read this post, that you map out your high school curriculum plan with courses that you want to take, from next school year until the spring of senior year. You want to take the view that colleges will examine your curriculum, looking for evidence of academic growth and excellence over time and being fully prepared for college coursework. Although you’ll map out all four years now, you can always refine it as you go. Also, by having a sense of your course journey, you’ll save time when meeting with your high school counselor and more likely get the classes that you want since you will be decisive about what you want to take early on.

Use a curriculum planner like this one. First add in all required courses to ensure you’ll be on track to graduate on time. Your counselor will always be helpful in making sure you meet this benchmark. Then, take it a step further and add rigor to your courses, but only at the level that you know you can handle. 

Take advanced courses

When starting out in HS, I do encourage students to push a bit and challenge themselves. For instance, for each regular class offered, you’d consider taking the honors or Advanced Placement (AP)  version of the course to strengthen your high school program. Or you’d consider college courses offered by your high school to satisfy requirements and give exposure to the college learning environment, while potentially earning college credit.

Use electives to enhance your studies

Beyond core classes incorporate electives that will allow you to learn about potential careers. For electives you can start with those that are interesting, while keeping an open mind as this may change as you get older and learn more about yourself. What is more, electives are great for career exploration, without the pressure to decide a major like you’ll do in college. Consider classes such as journalism or photography, or courses that teach fundamental skills, such as creative writing, debate, coding,  or jazz saxophone. These classes are the ones that will show your interest in learning and scholastic ability to excel in a range of classes.

Making the grade matters

It can be gratifying to take tough classes. But it can also be overwhelming and discouraging if you’ll be too stressed, stretched, and consumed to achieve good grades. Never sacrifice performance for rigor or breadth. Your goal is to do well in every class that you take, earning mostly As (and a few Bs are OK) along the way, or the best that will make you proud. Before you commit to a class, speak with former students to understand the difficulty of the class, the teacher’s style of instruction, and consider how easy (or difficult) it will be for you to balance expectations with other things you have going on such as sports and extracurricular commitments.

Connect to career options

The college applications that read the best are ones where the student can connect a career aspiration to high school classes taken that prove they are prepared to excel in the intended major or career pathway. Fore example, a student who expresses they’ll major in political science and has taken classes in U.S. history, A.P. government, economics, debate, and criminal justice. Or, the student who wants to major in digital marketing and has taken classes in psychology, journalism, photography, and creative writing. A high school curriculum planned with this level of intention and reflection, makes for a strong narrative in the college application and will show your preparation for college.

Conclusion + Next Steps

In conclusion, it’s important to plan more “big picture” when choosing classes. To choose classes for the upcoming school year may lead to an academic program that is all over the place and doesn’t achieve the impact you need it to have in your preparation for college and a career. Strive to plan for the whole four years, and make time to re-evaluate your plan every January when it’s time to formally select the classes for the next school year. Always be aware of how you’re performing to graduation requirements, and make sure that you research your college options, starting in sophomore year, to ensure you’re on the right track towards college entrance requirements.

Now that you’re familiar with how to choose high school classes, the next step is to: (1) use this chart to complete your plan, and (2) read about how declaring a major (even if you change your mind later) can help you in college admissions.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.