High School Courses and College-Prep Requirements
For starters, most colleges have certain requirements for the college-preparatory curriculum. College-prep courses differ from state to state and from school to school but usually include the following:
- 8 credits (4 years) of English
- 6 credits (3 years) of math, including Algebra I, geometry, and Algebra II
- (If your school offers integrated math, you can assume that colleges know that Integrated Math I, II, III correspond to Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II.)
- 2 additional credits (1 or more years) of math beyond Algebra II (trigonometry or calculus)
- 6 credits (3 years) of laboratory science, such as biology, chemistry, physics, or earth science
- 6 credits (3 years) of social studies, such as U.S. history, world history, government, or economics
- 4 to 6 credits (2 to 3 years) of a second language
Colleges want to see that you’ve challenged yourself. Most competitive schools would prefer a B in a college-level history class than an A in a regular one. But the key is to know yourself. Don’t take on too much. If your grades are stronger in certain subject areas, then that’s where you should take higher-level classes. For example, if you’re an ace at Spanish, consider taking the Advanced Placement (AP) course. At the end of the school year, if you score high enough on the AP test, you could place out of a semester of a college language requirement. But if language is not your strong suit, just do your best at your grade level.
Colleges are interested in your class rank and grade point average (GPA). Striving to make the honor roll at your high school is always a good move. But, if you rank at the top of your class, and didn’t take tough courses, colleges will take note of that. They want to make sure you’ve got what it takes to succeed in college.
- Don’t stress over a couple of bad grades or low test scores. You haven’t ruined your chances to get into college. You may have just hit a stumbling block. This is something you can fix.
- If you can make improvements on your own, that’s great. But if not, talk to your parents, teachers or your guidance counselors about getting some help. Colleges would much rather see improvements on your transcript than consistently low grades.
- You may be able to work with volunteer tutors or private tutors recommended by your school. You can also get help with your grades and/or standardized test scores through several nationwide educational and tutoring services.
More about the requirements
- Understand the differences between fulfilling high school graduation requirements and taking college-prep classes (for example, most colleges expect applicants to have taken at least two years of a foreign language, but few high schools list foreign languages as a necessity for graduation).
- There is no one definition of “selective” or “highly elective.” Most four-year colleges (more than 80 percent) accept more than half of their applicants, and in fact nearly half of all colleges accept more than 75 percent of applicants.
- In general, selective colleges consider course work, grades, test scores, recommendations, and essays.
- At very selective colleges, these factors are considered very carefully by the admission committee and more students are rejected than are accepted.
Requirements by Subject
Take English every year. Traditional courses such as American and English literature help you improve your writing skills, reading comprehension, and vocabulary.
- Writing/composition and/or speech
To succeed on college entrance exams, in college math classes, and in most careers, you need algebra and geometry. Take them early on, and you’ll be able to enroll in advanced science and math in high school—and you’ll show colleges you’re ready for higher-level work.
- Algebra I
- Algebra II
- Trigonometry and/or Calculus
Science teaches you to think analytically and to apply theories to observations of the natural world. Laboratory classes let you test what you’ve learned through hands-on work. Six semesters are recommended.
- Chemistry and/or Physics
- Earth/Space Sciences, Advanced Biology, Advanced Chemistry, or Physics
- Two semesters of U.S. History
- One semester of U.S. Government
- One semester of Economics
- One semester of World History or Geography
- One additional semester of these or other areas
Solid foreign language study shows colleges you’re willing to stretch beyond the basics.
Research indicates that students who participate in the arts often do better in school and on standardized tests. The arts help you recognize patterns, discern differences and similarities, and exercise your mind in unique ways, often outside of a traditional classroom setting.
More and more college courses and jobs require at least a basic knowledge of computers. Computer skills also can help you do research and schoolwork better and faster.
Create a four-year high school plan.
- Once your child is settled into ninth grade, introduce the idea of preparing an overall plan for high school that relates to his or her goals.
- Make sure you and your child know what high school courses are required by colleges, and that your child’s ninth-grade courses are on the right track.
- Map out when these courses should be taken.
- Familiarize yourself with the various levels of courses offered by your child’s school.
Start your child thinking about careers.
- Encourage your child to develop a tentative career goal.
- Help your child to identify interests—likes and dislikes—not just in academics but in all areas. This will help your child focus on goals.
- Encourage your child to discuss career options with others, such as the school counselor, teachers, recent college graduates who are working, professionals in the community, etc.
Suggest extracurricular activities.
- Encourage your child to actively take part in a sport, school club, music or drama group, or community volunteer activity.
- Remember that colleges would rather see real involvement in one activity than a loose connection to several activities.
- If your child may want to play sports in college, research the National College Athletic Association eligibility requirements. The NCAA requires completion of certain core courses; you can find the specifics at NCAA Clearinghouse.
Meet with the school counselor.
The school counselor knows how to help your child get the most out of high school. Make sure your child has an opportunity during the school year to discuss post–high school plans with the school counselor.
Save for college.
- It’s still not too late to start a college savings plan, if you haven’t already.
- Investigate state financial aid programs and 529 plans.
Obtain a social security number for your child if you don’t already have one.
This is often required for applications, testing, scholarships, and other opportunities.
Meet with the school counselor—again.
- Make sure your child meets with his or her school counselor to ensure that he or she is enrolled in college-preparatory courses.
- Check to see that your child is taking any prerequisites to advanced-level junior- and senior-year courses. PSAT/NMSQT® and PLAN if offered.
- While the PSAT is usually taken in the eleventh grade, it is also often offered in the tenth. The PSAT provides invaluable feedback on the Student Score Report; tenth-graders can then work on any disclosed academic weaknesses while there is still ample time to improve them.
- Students should also ask their guidance counselors about taking the PLAN tests made by the ACT. This exam prepares students for the ACT and helps them decide early if it might be a better test based on their learning style.
Is your child interested in attending a U.S. military academy?
If so, he or she should request a Pre-Candidate questionnaire and complete it.
Attend college and career fairs.
- These often take place in the fall, at your school, or in your area.
- Support your child’s participation in a school activity or volunteer effort.
- Extracurricular activities help students develop time-management skills and enrich the school experience.
Tour college campuses.
- If possible, take advantage of vacation or other family travel opportunities to visit colleges and see what they’re like.
- Even if there is no interest in attending the college you are visiting, it will help your child learn what to look for in a college.
- Start with yourself:
- Make lists of your abilities, social/cultural preferences, and personal qualities.
- List things you may want to study and do in college.
- Learn about colleges by visiting the websites.
- Talk to friends, family, teachers, and recent grads of your school now in college.
- List college features that interest you.
- Resource check:
- Visit the counseling office and meet the counselors there. Is there a college night for students and families?
- When will college representatives visit your school? (Put the dates in your calendar.) Examine catalogs and guides.
- At school, sign up early to take the PSAT/NMSQT®, which is given in October. If you plan to ask for testing accommodations (because of a disability), be sure your eligibility is approved by the College Board. Check with your school counselor.
- Sign up for the PLAN test, created by the ACT.
- Make a file to manage your college search, testing, and application data.
- If appropriate (for example, if you’re interested in drama, music, art, sports, etc.), start to gather material for a portfolio.
- With your family, start to learn about financial aid. Read the Department of Education’s Funding Your Education (about federal aid programs).
- Make a family appointment with your counselor to discuss ways to improve your college-preparation and selection processes.
- Sign up to take the SAT® and/or ACT at least once in the spring and again next fall. Register online or through your school. Fee waivers are available for students with financial need.
- Begin a search for financial aid sources.
- Ask a counselor or teacher about taking the SAT Subject Tests™ in the spring. You should take them while course material is still fresh in your mind.
- If you’re in Advanced Placement Program® (AP®) classes, register for AP Exams, given in May.
- Visit some local colleges—large, small, public, and private. Get a feel for what works for you.
- Attend college fairs.
- Scan local newspapers to see which civic, cultural, and service organizations in your area award financial aid to graduating seniors. Start a file.
- Develop a list of 15 or 20 colleges that attract you. Request viewbooks and information about financial aid and academic programs that interest you.
- Visit some colleges over your spring break.
- If you are considering military academies or ROTC scholarships, contact your counselor before leaving school for the summer. If you want a four-year ROTC scholarship, you should begin the application process the summer before your senior year.
- If you are an athlete planning to continue playing a sport in college, register with the NCAA Clearinghouse.
- Find a full-time or part-time job, or participate in a camp or summer college program.
- Visit colleges. Take campus tours and, at colleges you’re serious about, make appointments to have interviews with admissions counselors.
- Create a resume—a record of accomplishments, activities, and work experiences since you started high school.
- Download applications (or request paper copies) from colleges to which you’ll apply.
- Check application dates—large universities may have early dates or rolling admissions.
- Narrow your list of colleges to 5 to 10. Meet with a counselor about them and, if you’ve not yet done so, download college applications and financial aid forms. Plan to visit as many of these colleges as possible.
- Create a master list or calendar that includes:
- tests you’ll take and their fees, dates, and registration deadlines.
- college application due dates.
- financial aid application forms required and their deadlines. (Note: Aid applications may be due before college applications.)
- other materials you’ll need (recommendations, transcripts, etc.).
- your high school’s own application processing deadlines.
- If you can’t afford application or test fees, a counselor can help you request a fee waiver.
- If you have not had your test scores sent to the college to which you are applying, be sure to contact the College Board or ACT to have your scores sent.
- Try to finalize your college choices.
- Prepare Early Decision, Early Action, or rolling admissions applications as soon as possible.
- Ask for counselor or teacher recommendations if you need them. Give each teacher or counselor an outline of your academic record and your extracurricular activities. For each recommendation, provide a stamped, addressed envelope, and any college forms required.
- If you’re submitting essays, write first drafts and ask teachers and others to read them. If you’re applying for Early Decision, finish the essays for that application now.
- If you have not had your test scores sent to the college to which you are applying, be sure to contact the College Board or ACT to have them sent.
- November 1−15: For Early Decision admissions, colleges may require test scores and applications between these dates.
- Complete at least one college application by Thanksgiving.
- Counselors send transcripts to colleges. Give counselors the proper forms at least two weeks before colleges require them.
- As you finish and send your applications and essays, be sure to keep copies.
- If your college wants to see seventh-semester grades, be sure you give the form to your counselor.
- If you apply to colleges online, be sure to have your high school send a transcript—it goes to colleges separately, and by mail.
- Don’t let senioritis get the best of you! Accepting colleges do look at second-semester senior grades.
- Keep active in school. If you are wait-listed, the college will want to know what you have accomplished between the time you applied and learned of its decision.
- You should receive acceptance letters and financial aid offers by mid-April. If you haven’t done so yet, visit your final college before accepting. As soon as you decide, notify your counselor of your choice.
- If you have questions about housing offers, talk to your counselor or call the college.
- May 1: Colleges cannot require a deposit or commitment to attend before May 1. By that postmarked date, you must inform every college of your acceptance or rejection of the offer of admission and/or financial aid.
- Send your deposit to one college only.
- Wait-listed by a college? If you will enroll if accepted, tell the admissions director your intent and ask how to strengthen your application. Need financial aid? Ask whether funds will be available if you’re accepted.
- Work with a counselor to resolve any admissions or financial aid problems.
- Ask your high school to send a final transcript to your college.