Choosing high school classes. How important is it?

Student walking with red tinted backpack.

Planning your high school curriculum might not sound too exciting, but it may be the single most important, yet overlooked element of the college planning process. Students often ask me how to use their extracurricular activities and summers to their best advantage and are worried about making their application essays as strong as possible, but never even wonder if they have made the best possible course selections.

Why does this matter so much?

It makes sense if you think about it: Even if you have excelled in the art studio or on the basketball court, or have a fascinating personal story, no one wants you to show up to campus and struggle to pass your classes. That’s not good for you, the college, or the admissions office. And it turns out, not surprisingly, that the best predictor of academic success in college is academic success in high school.

Top 3 tips for planning your high school curriculum:

1.) Don’t be fooled by your high school graduation requirements. Depending on where you apply, just fulfilling them may not be enough. There are usually significant differences between high school graduation requirements, minimum requirements for eligibility at state universities, and a curriculum that makes you competitive for selective institutions. Check for additional or unusual requirements for your state’s public university system, such as the one year of visual or performing arts required by all University of California campuses. Even if “everyone else” is just doing the minimum to graduate, you may be unhappy with your college options if you follow the herd.

2.) Don’t specialize too much. Stick with the five core academic subjects (math, science, English, history, and foreign language) as long as you can, ideally for all four years. Of course, this is not always possible for a range of reasons, but do the best you can, and know that colleges will not penalize you if this is not possible at your high school. In college you can spend the majority of your academic time in your favorite subjects, but most colleges prefer that you wait until you get to campus to drop math and science in order to take three English or business classes. Several Deans of Admission have spoken out about this, including the much-admired “Dean J” at the University of Virginia.

3.) Challenge yourself. Look for opportunities to step up and challenge yourself, particularly in the subjects you enjoy most. Can you take an honors, AP, IB, or other advanced class in a favorite subject or two? Advanced work in high school shows admissions officers that you are prepared for college work. And while there is no need to take the most advanced classes in every subject, if you plan to apply to extremely competitive colleges, you will be expected to take quite a few, especially during 11th and 12th grades. Don’t overload yourself so much that you won’t have time for sleep, activities, social life, and family time, but do challenge yourself to the extent that makes sense for you. Who knows? You might even surprise yourself and enjoy it!

The primary reason I encourage students to begin working with me during 8th or 9th grade is because it allows time for good, thoughtful decisions about high school courses, tailored to each student’s individual interests and learning styles. This provides the best possible foundation for the rest of the college process and sets students up to have the greatest range of college options.

Author Stephanie Meade

More posts by Stephanie Meade