Explore Our 2024 Guide to Gap Year Programs!

    Choosing the Right High School Courses to Prepare for College

    Posted August 25, 2014, 2:00 pm
    Choosing the Right High School Courses to Prepare for College

    Success in the college admissions process can be narrowed down to one word: preparation. It’s not solely about raw talent. It rests more on what you do with the talent you’ve been given and how you prepare for college academics. In other words, it’s about how you apply yourself than your grades or intelligent quotient. Colleges draw their entering class from those students who possess the talent to compete in the classrooms and challenge themselves academically.

    When asked about the number one factor in college admissions, most students are not aware that colleges overwhelmingly say it’s a rigorous high school curriculum. They know that a strong course curriculum is the best predictor of initial college success. Knowing this makes it critical that students begin planning and preparing for college courses in high school. That means choosing the right courses and right level of difficulty to impress college admissions.

    Taking the Right Courses

    College admission officers want to see a solid foundation of learning that you can build on in college. That’s why it’s so important to start early in high school to form a firm foundation.

    To create that foundation, take at least five solid academic classes every semester. Start with the basics, and then move on to challenging yourself in advanced courses. Following are the courses recommended by the College Board for high school students preparing for college:


    Take English every year. Traditional courses, such as American and English literature, help improve your writing skills, reading comprehension and vocabulary.


    Algebra and geometry help you succeed on college entrance exams and in college math classes. Take them early, so you'll have time for advanced science and math, which will help show colleges you're ready for higher-level work. Taking math all four years of high school will help you meet quantitative course requirements, such as statistics or data analysis. Most colleges want students with three years of high school math. The more competitive colleges prefer four years. Take some combination of the following:

    • Algebra I
    • Algebra II
    • Geometry
    • Trigonometry
    • Calculus

    Science teaches you how to think analytically and how to apply theories to reality. Colleges want to see that you’ve taken at least three years of laboratory science classes. A good combination includes a year of each of the following:

    • Biology
    • Chemistry or physics
    • Earth/space science
    • Schools that are more competitive expect four years of lab science courses, which you may be able to get by taking advanced classes in these same areas.
    Social Studies

    Improve your understanding of local and world events by studying the cultures and history that helped shape them. Here is a suggested high school course plan:

    • U.S. history (a full year)
    • U.S. government (half a year)
    • World history or geography (half a year)
    • An extra half-year in the above or other areas
    Foreign Language

    Solid foreign language study shows that you're willing to stretch beyond the basics. Many colleges require at least two years of study in the same foreign language, and some prefer more.

    The Arts

    Many colleges require or recommend one or two semesters in the arts. Good choices include studio art, dance, music and drama.

    Determining the Degree of Difficulty

    This can be a difficult decision, especially if you have started in junior or senior year of high school to plan for college. You should challenge yourself, especially in the areas where you excel, and maintain a solid college-prep curriculum. Your high school counselor can be most helpful in planning your courses, and explaining any specific course requirements for specific colleges.

    You don’t need all AP classes to get into college, but depending on the selectivity of the colleges you want to attend, you’ll need to take more demanding and challenging honors, accelerated, AP, International Baccalaureate (IB) courses to stand out in the college admissions process.

    In College Prep: Choosing Your High School Classes on Petersons.com, they explain what colleges are looking for in an applicant as far as course requirements and difficulty:

    One of the questions school counselors are asked on the Common Application School Report forms (and many individual college applications) is the difficulty of your course load, compared to other college-bound students at your high school. Why? Colleges are essentially looking to see how much you have pushed yourself and where you stand. This provides the foundation for the question: “Should I take advanced courses, even if my grades will go down, or should I take regular-level courses and get straight A’s?” Let’s say you and another senior at your school apply to the same college. If you have a B average with mostly honors and advanced courses, and the other student has an A average but never took tough classes, chances are that colleges will reward you for your efforts.

    Your college plan in high school should be about balance: few selective colleges will excuse several C’s, even if the classes are challenging. In addition, taking too many difficult courses can often affect your extracurriculars and your test-taking abilities due to the added stress these courses often cause.

    Perform Well in the Courses You Choose

    Next, do as well as you can in those courses. Having created a scenario of appropriate challenge, commit yourself to getting the most out of it. Academic rigor in itself is meaningless if it is not met with commensurate performance. "Good enough" won't get you into your dream college. By performing well in rigorous courses, admissions officers will have greater confidence in your ability to take greater challenges when attending college.

    Supplementing Your High School Courses

    There are also many other learning experiences that will help you in the college process and add to your overall resume. You can search more than 15,000 teen enrichment programs right here on TeenLife's site.

    Many colleges like Brown University offer pre-college programs that prepare you for academic success. Brown has over 300 summer offerings on campus, online and abroad. As one student blogger so aptly put it about his pre-college experience at Cornell, “The benefits of the course were not merely academic; it was great to be able to have a temporary college experience as a high school student. Lastly, the prolonged look at the school offering the summer program is an invaluable piece of data in your college search and application process. The weeks spent living in a dorm and having a 'college experience' will be strange at times, but also extremely fun!”

    For a more adventurous learning experience, you might consider the Sail Caribbean program. Sail Caribbean is the leader in teen sailing, scuba, marine biology and community service programs. No experience required. The focus is on experiential learning, leadership training and personal growth. Sixth graders to college age can choose from eight program groups. Community service is built in to every program. Giving back to the islands you visit is an important element of these trips. Students earn from 5 to 30 service hours, depending on the program chosen. Service activities include both ecological projects and youth development initiatives.

    If your high school doesn’t offer the courses you prefer or are required by a college you want to attend, use your summers, as well as local community colleges, to expand your academic transcript. Many community colleges allow high school students to take evening, weekend, and summer classes. You can take high-level courses and earn college credit while showing initiative.

    Sign up for Free Tips and Guides direct to Your Inbox