Which science classes will you be required to take in high school, and what will you learn in them? Which science subjects will colleges expect you to have studied, and how can you impress them by exceeding expectations?
Read this guide to learn about standard science curriculum, AP and IB science courses, college expectations, and ways you can exceed those expectations and use your high school science classes to strengthen your transcript.
Standard High School Science Curriculum
Most high schools require students to complete 2 or 3 years of science classes in order to graduate, and these classes will often include a laboratory component where students conduct hands-on experiments as part of the class.
The course sequence for science classes in most high schools goes biology → chemistry → physics. Some schools teach earth science freshman year then move on to biology and chemistry, and some schools follow the "Physics First" curriculum where students take physics as freshman. However, the majority of schools follow the course sequence outlined below:
Freshman Year: Biology
Biology is usually the first science high school students are taught because it has less of a focus on math than other science subjects, so freshman have time to develop their math skills before moving on to more math-focused sciences
Main topics include: cells, the organism and its relationship to the environment, human growth and development, ecology, genetics.
Sophomore Year: Chemistry
Chemistry generally has a greater emphasis on mathematical concepts and lab work than biology.
Main topics include: introduction to acids and bases, the mole concept, reaction rates, and chemical energy.
Junior Year: Physics or Earth/Physical Science
This is probably the first year you will have a choice in regards to which science subject to study: physics or earth/physical science
Physics is most often taken by students more confident in their scientific and math abilities, those planning to study science or math in the future, and those who want to get into more competitive colleges. Physics frequently requires math skills (algebra level and above).
Main topics include: concepts of time, space, and matter, motion and forces, optics and light, electricity and magnetism, atomic physics.
Different schools may have different names for this course, but most classes will cover topics from both earth and physical science. These classes are less math-intensive and often considered less rigorous than physics.
Main topics in earth science: geology, weather, astronomy, life processes.
Main topics in physical science: kinetics, mechanics, optics, electricity, magnetism.
Should You Take Physics?
It looks better on your transcript if you do, but most colleges don’t require it, unless you plan on majoring in math or science.
If you are applying to a highly competitive school, plan on studying math or science in the future, or are confident in your math and science abilities, then you should take physics.
If you struggle with math and science and aren’t planning on majoring in those fields, then it’s probably fine to take earth/physical science instead. However, try to take higher level classes in other subjects like English or social studies to keep your transcript strong.
Senior Year: Optional Electives
There is no standard science subject for high school seniors Most high schools do not require seniors to take a science class, but if you choose to, you can take electives. Electives are offered on a wide variety of subjects, including astronomy, human biology, and zoology.
Senior year is also an excellent year to strengthen your transcript by taking AP science classes (see “How can you Exceed Expectations” section below).
You'll have the opportunity to take a variety of science classes in high school. Image source: Pearson
Which Science Classes Do Colleges Expect You to Have Taken?
Similar to high schools, most colleges require applicants to have taken 2-3 years of science. These requirements also often include passing biology and chemistry.
However, if you are applying to a highly competitive college, be aware that many require or highly recommend completing 4 years of science in high school, and they sometimes also require your 4th year of science to be an AP science class.
Regardless of the type of college you are interested in attending, if you plan on majoring in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field, you will be expected to have taken 4 years of science in high school, including physics.
How Can You Exceed Expectations?
If you are not planning on majoring in a STEM field or applying to a highly competitive college, it is more important for you to focus on courses more closely related to your future major than trying to exceed colleges' expectations with your science classes. Colleges are more interested in how well you did in the subjects you plan to continue studying in college. Completing 3 years of science and getting solid grades in those classes is typically all you need to do to meet the expectations of college admissions officers.
However, if you are able to take 4 years of science, possibly with some of those classes at an honors or AP level, that's great and will strengthen your transcript, but don't pursue challenging science classes if it causes your grades in the area you plan to major in to drop.
If you plan to study a STEM field, it’s important to show you have strong science skills, and your science coursework should go beyond basic entrance requirements. You will likely be using at least some of the skills you learn in your science classes in your future career, and colleges want to be sure you can handle the subject material before they admit you. Also, you will be competing for a spot with many other talented STEM students, so it is important to exceed expectations to help yourself stand out. You can accomplish this by taking 4 years of science, taking science courses at the highest level they are offered (honors or AP), and getting high grades in those classes.
- Take honors classes if possible your first 3 years
- Take physics instead of earth science
- Take one or more AP science classes your senior year
- Get strong grades in these classes
Below are several examples of advanced science classes.
The main AP science classes AP Biology, AP Chemistry AP Physics C (calculus based), and AP Physics 1 and 2 (algebra based). These classes expand on material learned in regular or honors-level courses, but are more rigorous, require more math skills, and often have a greater lab component. If you plan on taking one or more of these classes your senior year, make sure you have enough room in your schedule. Because of the number of labs students in these courses must complete, these classes sometimes take 1.5 or 2 class periods a day in order to fit in all the required material.
Of the three subjects, none is automatically the “best” to take; all three are rigorous courses known for having challenging AP exams (although Physics C is generally viewed as more difficult than Physics 1&2 because it requires knowledge of calculus). If you decide to take one of these courses, choose the one you think most relates to your future studies and career, or look at college websites to see which course would get you the most college credits, and make your decision that way.
AP Environmental Science is also another option, and it focuses on human impacts on the environment, climate change, interrelationships of the natural world, and ways of developing solutions to environmental problems. This course is not considered quite as rigorous as the other AP science classes because it usually doesn’t have an honors prerequisite, and it requires less math and lab work. However, it is still an AP course and will therefore still be challenging and viewed more highly than taking non-AP science electives.
AP Environmental Science is a good option for someone who wants to take an AP science but without as much rigor or time commitment as the other AP science courses, or for someone who is already taking a different AP science class and wants to add another that only takes up one class period.
In order to obtain the IB diploma, you must take at least one course from each of the six IB subject categories. Science is one of those categories, with seven different IB options. IB courses are offered at standard level (SL) and high level (HL). The IB science courses are as follows:
Three Main Science Courses: Biology, Chemistry, and Physics
These three classes are comparable to AP courses, although IB courses often include more report writing and lab work.
Particularly if you plan on studying science in college, it would be a good idea to take one of these three courses for the group requirement, as they are the science subjects colleges are most interested in.
All three offered at SL and HL
This course focuses on computational thinking and how computers work. It also includes practical activities, such as programming. This is a good option if you plan on studying computer science or a similar subject in college.
SL and HL
This course teaches students how to create solutions to common problems using the design cycle and technology. Main subjects taught include modeling, sustainable production, and innovation and design.
SL and HL
Environmental Systems and Societies
This is an interdisciplinary course that focuses on conservation and biodiversity, pollution management, and environmental demands of human populations.
Sports, Exercise, and Health Science
This course focuses on human anatomy and physiology, as well as nutrition, psychology, and biomechanics.
- SL only
More Options for Science Classes
If you want to take a specific science class, perhaps one that is closely related to your future career, or you simply want the opportunity to take more science classes beyond the required curriculum, there are several ways to do this.
While taking an AP science class will look most impressive to colleges, electives are always an option as well, particularly if you don't plan on majoring in a STEM subject. Many schools offer a wide range of science electives, and they are a great way to take a class in a more specialized field of science you’re particularly interested in, or to add more science courses to your transcript if you don’t have the time or desire to take an AP science course.
Community College Classes
If your school doesn’t offer a specific AP science class or elective, you may be able to take a similar course at a local community college. This is also a way to take higher-level science classes most high schools don't offer, including advanced classes in biology, chemistry or physics. While taking a college-level class can be difficult, it will look great on your transcript, and you often get college credit for it. Talk to your guidance counselor to learn how to enroll in community college classes.
It's becoming more common for high schools to offer classes developed specifically for students planning a particular science career, such as one in medicine or research. My school had a course students who wanted to become doctors could take, where three days a week they would have a standard human physiology class, and twice a week they would visit a local hospital and observe doctors and nurses. Similar to job shadowing, this is a great opportunity to get more hands-on experience and see if a particular career is right for you. Even if your school doesn’t offer classes like that, you may be able to set up something similar as an independent study.
Your school may offer science classes specifically for students thinking about pursuing a degree in medicine
- Most colleges and high schools require you to complete 2-3 years of science.
- You will probably be required to take biology and chemistry your first two years of high school.
- Take physics your junior year if any of the following apply: you are confident in your math and science abilities, you plan on majoring in math, engineering, or science in college, or you are looking to attend a top college.
- If you plan on majoring in a STEM field, you should take 4 years of science, including an AP science class your senior year, if possible.
- If you will not be majoring in a STEM field, consider taking science electives your senior year.
Trying to decide whether AP or IB is better? Check out our guide to see which program is best for you!
Also wondering about which math classes you should take in high school? We have a guide that explains standard curriculum, course sequence, and ways to impress colleges with your math classes.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.