What High School Classes Do Colleges Look For?

Colleges want well-rounded students who challenge themselves academically. See which high school classes you want on your transcripts for college admissions.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Updated June 28, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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What High School Classes Do Colleges Look For?
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For high school students, college admissions can seem like a numbers game. If you exceed the minimum GPA and submit above-average test scores, you'll often get in. But that may not be true at colleges with competitive admissions.

That's because colleges look beyond the numbers to build a picture of each applicant. And that means looking at what classes high school students take.

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Consider two applicants with the same GPA. One took mostly regular classes with a few honors classes. The other took mostly honors classes with several AP classes. The types of classes — and even your electives — can determine whether you'll get an acceptance letter.

When choosing your high school schedule, think about your college plans because colleges look at the classes you take.

What Classes Do Colleges Want to See?

College admission officers look at more than your high school GPA. They also want to know what classes you took in high school. So what classes do colleges want to see?

Foundational Classes

Colleges look at applicants' core classes: English, math, science, and social studies. Many colleges even calculate a separate GPA for these foundational classes.

So, make sure you're focusing on these core subjects throughout your time in high school. That means not dropping all your math or science classes your senior year. Colleges look for consistency, and evidence that you're not prioritizing foundational classes can hurt your admission chances.

Foreign Language Classes

At some high schools, foreign language classes are optional. But they do matter for college admissions. In fact, many competitive colleges require a minimum of two years of foreign language classes in high school — and some recommend four years.

When choosing a foreign language, consider focusing on one language for at least two years. Many colleges specify that students should take the same language to meet admission requirements. And after several years of study, you can consider taking an AP foreign language class.

College Track Classes

At many high schools, the graduation requirements meet the minimum admission requirements for two-year and some four-year colleges. For example, you'll often need at least four years of English and three or four years of math, science, and social studies to graduate. Many states also set minimum requirements for foreign language, art, and health.

However, some colleges set higher requirements than the state minimum. Many high schools help college-bound students by offering a college track or recommended college prep classes.

Check with your high school and research the admission policies at your top colleges to see what they recommend.

Do Honors, AP, and IB Classes Matter?

Many high schools offer several tracks. Typically, students choose between regular or honors classes. They might also have the option of International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP) classes. For example, 70% of high schools offered AP classes in 2021.

And class type does matter for college admissions. Colleges look for students who challenge themselves — and they also look for consistency.

Honors Classes vs. Regular Classes

Should you try to get into honors classes or stick with regular classes? If you're aiming for college, it's a good idea to challenge yourself academically. Try out honors classes your first year of high school. That can give you more options your sophomore and junior years.

If you're struggling in honors classes, work with your teachers to improve your study skills. Consider focusing your energy on honors classes in core subjects.

IB and AP Classes

What about IB and AP classes? Admissions officers look for academically rigorous classes on your transcript, particularly at competitive colleges. As such, taking these classes can help during admissions.

However, your grades in challenging classes also matter. Avoid loading down your schedule with too many IB or AP classes if it might negatively affect your GPA.

Keep in mind that you can self-study for an AP test even if your school doesn't offer AP classes. That can also help your application stand out.

What Electives Do Colleges Want to See?

Colleges look beyond your core classes to see what kinds of electives you choose. But what electives do colleges want on your transcript?

In short, colleges look for electives that demonstrate your interests and academic abilities. Rather than scanning transcripts for particular electives, admissions officers try to build a picture of you as a person and a scholar.

Are you interested in the arts? Electives in pottery and photography can tell colleges about your potential major. Or, if you sign up for career and technical education electives like applied engineering or computer programming, you can showcase your technical skills.

Rather than choosing electives strategically, pick classes that interest you and give you a well-rounded education.

Should You Take Harder Classes or Prioritize GPA?

Should you choose the easy classes that you can ace or challenge yourself by taking harder courses? It might seem tempting to take the easier route. But admissions officers look for students who push themselves.

When signing up for classes, keep a few things in mind. Your foundational subjects — English, math, science, and social studies — rank high for college admissions, so prioritize those classes.

Try to challenge yourself academically, but avoid overextending yourself. Receiving low grades in a dozen AP classes and burning out before senior year will only hurt you.

Remember, too, that colleges can see your senior-year classes on your transcript even before grades post. So avoid dropping physics and AP Statistics to lighten your course load.

Finally, take time to explore your interests. Take unusual electives or sign up for a foreign language you've always wanted to study. Colleges want well-rounded undergraduates, and high school is a great time to explore your passions.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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