What high school courses are required for college?

What high school courses are required for college?

Sometime this spring, you may be asked to make course selection choices for next school year. What courses should you select? What will colleges require? Are there certain courses you can take that will make you more competitive for admission?

High School Requirements

The first issue you face is meeting the graduation requirements for your high school. These vary and may be set on a state, district, or campus level. Check your student handbook or course catalog for details.

In general, students are required to take English, math, science, history, and language classes. Most schools require a few additional courses such as arts, technology, PE/health, and electives. If you attend a parochial school, you might have some type of theology or Bible requirements.

Have your high school requirements handy and make sure you satisfy each one. Pay close attention to detail because some requirements defy common sense. Ages ago, I coached the high school speech and debate team. At the time, all students were required to have one year of a communications course in order to graduate. Debate did NOT satisfy the requirement. Yes, I know my students had superior written and spoken communication, but the state requirement did not allow debate to count for the communications requirement.

If you have any questions about your school’s graduation requirements, check with your counselor.

College Requirements

Will your high school requirements be enough to meet college requirements?


Most college requirements are similar to the graduation requirements at your high school. While you may find some differences among schools, in general colleges expect:

  • 4 years of English
  • 3+ years of Math
  • 3+ years of History / Social Studies
  • 3+ years of Science (most require lab sciences such as biology and chemistry)
  • 2 year of a language other than English

Here’s where students make a big mistake. These college requirements are MINIMUM standards, not recommended coursework. In other words, this isn’t what colleges WANT to see on your transcript; it is the bare minimum.

Colleges Want Students Who Go Beyond the Minimum

What you find published on the college’s website should not serve as your course selection guide because the admissions office will be looking for students who have challenged themselves academically and gone beyond the minimum graduation requirements.

Here are some better guidelines:

English — 4 years of English with a mix of literature and composition work. Most schools will offer English I, II, III, and IV and this is fine.

Math — take math every year in high school. (Notice I didn’t say 4 years of math credit; getting an early start by taking Algebra or Geometry in junior high does not mean you can skip math as a junior or senior.) Colleges will expect to see Algebra II at a minimum and some type of math course every year.

Science — 4 years of science. Most colleges expect to see biology, chemistry, and physics.

History / Social Studies — Again, 4 years is strongly advised. Most students will likely take geography, history, and some type of government or civics class.

Other Language — 2 years of the same language is the minimum; 3 is recommended. If you are applying to highly selective schools, you should give serious consideration to 4 years.

This is one of the easiest ways to distinguish yourself from other applicants. Many high schools require four years of English, math, science, and history, so taking those just puts you on par with everyone else. Most high schools only require two years of another language, so by taking a year or two extra, you can show your willingness to complete challenging academic work.

High Achievers

The above recommendations apply to all college-bound students, but if you are a high achiever and might consider some of the more selective colleges, you need to select courses that will make you competitive with other applicants.

Here are some high achiever course selection tips:

  • Make sure you are on track to take the highest level of math offered at your school. For many, this means taking AP Calculus your senior year. AP Calculus is generally seen as more challenging than AP Statistics, so if you can take only one, make it calculus.
  • Don’t skip physics. Maybe your high school offers a lot of science courses for juniors and seniors. You can take these other courses as long as you already have biology, chemistry, and physics.
  • Four years of the same language is highly recommended.

In general, if you want to apply to highly competitive colleges, your best course advice in high school is to take the more challenging options. Not only will challenging academic courses help you with admission, but they will also prepare you to succeed in college.

Word of Caution

Although you will apply to college in the fall of your senior year, before any grades are in, all college applications ask you to list your senior schedule. They care what you take. Colleges want to see the same person show up for all four years. In other words, they don’t want to see an otherwise serious student turn into a slacker. Don’t ease off and stop taking challenging academic classes your senior year.

Local Students

I’m going to speak to my local students for a minute— I see a number of my local students making the same scheduling mistake. Don’t take two off-periods your senior year and expected to be seen as a serious student.

Yes, you might get into the state universities if you already qualify for automatic admission based on rank, but an easy senior schedule won’t help if you undergo review or apply to any of the more challenging schools. When you have been taking seven periods each year and show up as a senior taking only five (the minimum for the state to recognize you as a full-time student) you are telling colleges that you are tired of learning. You did the minimum and aren’t interested in doing more.

I’m not opposed to one off period or a study hall period. But just because your school will let you take two period off doesn’t mean you should. (Your school gets paid the same whether you take five periods or seven; which one seems like the better deal for them?!)


Colleges may list a minimum course requirement for entering high school students, but often those lists are based on the graduation requirements at many high schools. In reality, more competitive applicants will go beyond minimum requirements and take four years (or more) of English, math, science, and history. You can distinguish yourself (and prepare to succeed in college) by going beyond the minimum graduation requirements.

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