This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
English (or Language Arts)
A typical English curriculum will focus on important works of British and American literature and poetry, and also will build your vocabulary, writing ability, reading comprehension, and analysis. It’s important that you take at least one English offering each year.
Though many high schools only require three years of science to graduate, top colleges will want to see one science course per year. A strong college transcript includes courses in biology (sometimes called “living environment”), chemistry, physics and a fourth science class of your choice. Many high schools offer special science electives like microbiology, forensics, astrophysics or anatomy as well as the traditional science classes. And the more courses you can take with labs, the better.
Most high schools offer a math “track,” in which students take 1-2 years of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, precalculus and calculus. Wherever you begin this track (some kids enter high school with some algebra under their belts, some take algebra and geometry in a different order, and some combine trigonometry with precalculus), it’s important to take at least one math class per year. The more math courses you can take—ideally, finishing trigonometry, precalculus or calculus by graduation—the stronger your transcript will be.
“Colleges will want to see that you’ve taken the most challenging classes available to you.”
Social Studies (or History)
Most high schools require a year each of American history and global history. In addition, some states have requirements for special classes such as American government, economics or geography. Ask your guidance counselor what your social studies requirements are. Whichever combination of courses you take, make sure you take one social studies or history class every year.
Spanish, French, Latin or German—see what your high school offers, and take whichever language is most interesting to you. Colleges want to see you commit to learning one language (so, don’t suddenly switch languages in 11th grade); though most high schools only require two years of a foreign language, colleges will want to see three or more.
This can include music, drama, creative writing, choir or studio arts (painting, drawing, etc.)—check out the course offerings at your school. The arts may seem unimportant since they aren’t core classes, but colleges know that they foster creativity and help you develop your thinking in unique ways.
Make sure you are fulfilling your high school requirements for gym and health classes, which usually fall under the same category. Sometimes you can fulfill these requirements by participating in after-school sports; check with your guidance counselor for specifics.
Besides looking at which subjects you’re taking, colleges will want to see that you’ve taken the most challenging classes available to you. If honors classes are available, or if your school has an Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) program, find out if you’re eligible to take those classes. Advanced courses will not only bolster your transcript by showing what a serious student you are, they’ll also help you develop a deeper knowledge of the subjects, which will help you tackle college-level classes later on.
Remember: Getting a “B” in an honors or other advanced class is better than coasting with an “A” in a standard class; it shows the colleges that you’re hardworking and up for a challenge.