Are you wondering what a typical high school curriculum looks like? Do you want to know what classes you’ll be taking as a high school student?
Read this guide to learn about the standard high school curriculum, high school graduation requirements, and what classes colleges expect you to have taken.
How to Find Your School's Curriculum
This is a general guide to high school curricula. It was created by researching national education standards, as well as the curricula of high schools across the country. While the information below applies to many students, not all high schools teach the same courses, follow the same course sequence, or have the same curriculum requirements. Use this information as a guideline to research your own high school’s curriculum more in-depth.
To find your own school's curriculum, talk to your academic adviser. You can also look on your school's website, searching for "graduation requirements", "course sequence" or something similar. Your high school's course catalog will also usually contain this information.
Which Subjects Should You Take More Rigorous Courses In?
In addition to explaining typical graduation requirements, each core subject in this guide includes ways to exceed basic requirements and strengthen your transcript. However, trying to go the extra mile in every subject can be exhausting and lead to you getting burned out. Because colleges appreciate depth more than breadth, concentrate on putting extra effort in the area(s) you plan to continue studying in college.
For example, if you plan on majoring in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field, try to follow our guidelines for exceeding expectations in your math and science classes, and worry less about taking advanced courses in English and history (although still work to get solid grades in those courses). Similarly, if you plan on majoring in something like journalism, concentrate most of your effort on taking advanced English classes and additional English electives.
Also, if you are looking at attending a highly competitive college, know that most expect applicants to have taken honors or advanced classes if their school offers them, and most also require or highly recommend completing four years in each core subject (math, science, English, and social studies).
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Standard High School Curriculum
Below is information on the typical classes a high school student will be expected to take, organized by subject. Each subject includes classes that are required to graduate high school, classes colleges expect students to have taken, and suggestions for ways to impress by going beyond these expectations.
- Four years of English are required to graduate high school.
- Freshman and Sophomore years: Classes during these years will be primarily focused on developing writing and critical reading skills.
- Junior year: This year will focus on American literature, as well as continued development of writing skills.
- Senior Year: Electives
- Possible electives include British literature, creative writing, and world literature.
- Colleges will expect all high school graduates to have completed four years of English.
To Exceed Expectations:
- Take honors or AP classes when possible.
- There are two AP English classes: English Language and Composition (usually taken junior year), and English Literature and Composition (usually taken senior year).
- There are three IB literature classes: Language A: Literature, Language A: Language and Literature, and Literature and Performance.
- Also consider taking additional English electives in areas that you’re interested in, such as literature or writing.
- At least three years of math, including algebra and geometry, is required to graduate high school.
- The typical course order is:
- Algebra 1
- Algebra 2/Trigonometry
- (Not all students start with algebra 1, and not all students complete all the above courses or follow the above order exactly)
- Most colleges require three-four years of math for non-STEM majors, including algebra 1 and 2 and geometry.
- For STEM majors, most colleges require four years of math, sometimes including pre-calculus and calculus.
To Exceed Expectations:
- Take four years of math.
- Take math at the highest level offered by your school, such as at an honors or AP level.
- There are three AP Math classes: Calculus AB, Calculus BC, and Statistics.
- There are four IB Math classes that cover roughly the same material but vary in difficulty and speed.
- Take pre-calculus and calculus, if possible.
- Take additional math-related electives such as statistics and computer math.
- Two to three years of science, including biology and chemistry, is required to graduate high school.
- Freshman year: Biology
- Sophomore year: Chemistry
- Junior year: Physics or Earth Science
- Students who are more confident in their math and science skills typically take physics, while those who are not take earth science instead.
- Senior year: optional electives
- Potential electives include astronomy, environmental science, and human biology.
- Most colleges require two-three years of science for non-STEM majors.
- For STEM majors, most colleges require four years of science, including physics.
To Exceed Expectations:
- Take four years of science.
- Take honors or accelerated classes your first three years.
- Take physics instead of earth science your junior year.
- Take an AP science class your senior year.
- AP science classes include: Biology, Chemistry, Physics (1,2, and C versions), and Environmental Science
- There are seven IB science classes: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Computer Science, Design Technology, Environmental Systems and Societies, Sports, Education and Health Science
- You can also take more career-focused classes if your school offers them, such as job shadowing at a hospital.
- Three years of social studies, including US history, is often required to graduate high school.
- Freshman year: Introductory course
- This can be a human geography course or another introductory social studies class.
- Sophomore year: World history
- Junior year: US History
- Senior year: Optional electives
- Possible electives include psychology, US government, and anthropology.
- Most colleges require completing at least two years of social studies, often including US history and World or European history classes.
- For students planning on majoring in a related field, such as political science or history, most colleges require they have completed four years of social studies.
To Exceed Expectations:
- Take four years of social studies.
- Take AP classes when possible during your first three years.
- AP options during these three years include Human Geography, World History, European History, and US History
- During your senior year, take an AP social studies elective, if possible.
- AP electives include Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, Psychology, US Government and Politics, and Comparative Government and Politics.
- IB classes for social studies are offered under the group entitled “Individuals and Societies”.
- Ten classes are offered on varying subjects.
- Foreign language requirements can vary greatly by school.
- Most high schools require students to complete one-two years of foreign language.
- Most colleges require one-two years of a foreign language, and highly competitive schools may require or recommend up to four years.
- Most high schools and colleges require that these credits all come from the same foreign language. For example, if your high school requires two years of foreign language, taking Spanish 1 and Spanish 2 will meet that requirement, but taking Spanish 1 and then switching to Italian 1 often won’t.
To Exceed Expectations:
- Take one foreign language all four years of high school, including AP level if possible.
- You may also want to consider taking a second foreign language.
These are classes that are not part of the core curriculum, but may still be a part of graduation requirements.
- Most high schools require students to complete a certain number of credits in order to graduate. Core requirements (such as those listed above) usually do not fill all these credits, so extra space in your schedule can be used to take electives.
- Electives can be regular, honors, or AP level.
- They can relate to a core subject, such as statistics, creative writing, and zoology, or not, such as choir, drawing, and woodworking.
- Physical Education
- Many high schools require students to complete one-four years of physical education. This may be waived if you participate in a school sport.
How to Use This Information
Now that you know what the typical high school curriculum looks like, you can use this information to make more informed decisions about your own high school classes. Some actions to take include:
- Think about your course sequence early, ideally starting freshman year if possible.
- Reflect on your course choices each quarter or semester. Are you on track to graduate on time? Are you taking the classes you need to get into the colleges you want and the major you want? Talk to your academic adviser if you're not sure.
- Think about the subject areas where you want to exceed expectations and choose your classes accordingly. However, don't be afraid to drop to a lower level if you're having a lot of trouble with a particular class.
Wondering if you're taking enough challenging classes? Check out our guide to learn what a rigorous high school course load looks like.
Do you know what colleges look for on your transcript? Learn what a high school transcript is and why it's so important to colleges.
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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.