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The High School English Classes You Should Take


It's no secret that colleges want you to take English class each year of high school. But what exactly are you supposed to be learning? What options do you have to exceed expectations and show off your stuff? And what if you're such a book-loving reader that in the dictionary under "bibliophile" there's a picture of you—how can you really max out your high school English experience?

Read on to learn about the common core, honors and AP classes, and going beyond what the standard curriculum offers!


What Do Colleges Expect?

You'll be hard-pressed to find a college that doesn't expect you to have taken 4 years of English or Language Arts classes. Likewise, the vast majority of high schools require 4 years of English in order for you to graduate. These 4 years are cumulative, meaning each year builds on what you learned before, and now each year is most likely based on the common core standards.

So, colleges assume that when you start freshman year, you've been learning all of this:


9th Grade is the setup year

  • you practice basic essay-writing skills
  • you study different literary genres
  • you analyze narrative voice, characters, and plot


10th Grade is the building year

  • you practice the outlining, drafting, and revising process


11th Grade focuses on American literature

  • your writing gets more complex, as you do your own research and use outside sources
  • you now start reading not just for content but also for historical context, period, setting, and point of view
  • this is a good year to take American history as well


12th Grade looks out at the world

  • you read British literature and sometimes world literature, depending on your high school
  • you put all your skills together, analyzing complex literature and nonfiction
  • you produce research papers, presentations, and maybe even multimedia projects
  • this may be a good year to also take European or world history


Common Core Reading Standards

body_hugebookcaseThere's... a lot of choice. Having a guide helps.

Want to know the type of books colleges assume you will have read by the time you get in? Here are some examples of what the common core standards want you to be reading in high school, broken down by year:

  Literature: Stories, Drama, Poetry Informational Texts: Literary Nonfiction and Historical, Scientific, and Technical Texts
9th - 10th Grade The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1592) "Speech to the Second Virginia Convention" by Patrick Henry (1775)
"Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817) "Farewell Address" by George Washington (1796)
"The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe (1845) "Gettysburg Address" by Abraham Lincoln (1863)
"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry (1906) "State of the Union Address" by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1941)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) "Hope, Despair and Memory" by Elie Wiesel (1997)
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1975)  
11th - 12th Grade "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats (1820) Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1776)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1848) Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
"Because I Could Not Stop for Death" by Emily Dickinson (1890) "Society and Solitude" by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1857)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) "The Fallacy of Success" by G. K. Chesterton (1909)
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945)
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959) "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell (1946)
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2003) "Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry" by Rudolfo Anaya (1995)


If you want a very long breakdown of what the common core recommends you study, check out their year-by-year guide.


How Can I Exceed Expectations?

Honors Classes

These will most likely be similar to the standard classes your school offers, but the works you read will be more challenging and the assignments more complex and demanding. In other words, you'll do more work and put in more effort, but you'll be better prepared for college-level writing!

Pro tip: in your school, honors classes may be a prerequisite for AP classes.


AP English Classes

There are two AP English options:

  • AP English Language and Composition
    • if your school offers both AP English classes, this is the one you'll take Junior year
    • this class and exam are all about how writers do what they do: how they use rhetoric, genre, style, and how they play with audience expectations
  • AP English Literature and Composition
    • if your school offers both AP English classes, this is the one you'll take senior year
    • this class and exam have to do with critical analysis, close reading, literary structure, themes, as well as imagery


IB Diploma Classes

There are three IB literature options:

  • Language A: Literature
    • this course focuses on the analysis of literary texts
  • Language A: Language and Literature
    • this class takes the analysis further by looking at both literary and non literary genres, and by considering how the context of writing or reading something affects its meaning
  • Literature and Performance
    • this class is all about the relationship between literature and theater, focusing on close reading, critical writing and the aesthetic and symbolic elements of performance


Both Language A classes are offered in a variety of languages, and Literature and Performance can be taken in French or Spanish by special request, so these may be great options for non-native speakers or bilingual students.

Some IB diploma classes can be taken online, but the closest you'll come to English online is the Film SL class, which is all about the history, formal elements, technical production, and of course critical analysis of film.


What If I'm an English Class Junkie? Is There More?


Please, sir, may I have some more... English class? In this bowl, for some reason?


Check Out Your School's Electives

This is the time to think just a little bit outside the box! For example, classes in creative writing offer a great window into later being able to see how someone else did it. Electives in the humanities can often offer what is basically a modified literature class. And there are many other subjects that focus on reading, analyzing, and writing about texts—subjects like philosophy, theater studies, world religions, psychology, or anthropology.


Design Your Own Course

Your school is your resource, so don't be afraid to get creative. Consider asking a teacher to help you set up an independent project or independent study to explore your interests!

For example, in my senior year, on top of my coursework, with the help of my favorite English teacher I designed an independent study of reading and writing poetry. It was incredibly rewarding!


Take High School Classes Online

For instance, Stanford University has an online high school which features 7 English courses and lets you enroll to take as many of them as you want.

Brown University also offers a set of online pre-college courses. They have 4 related classes on nonfiction, travel writing, formal college writing, and a humanities seminar on evolutionary thought.


Take Summer Classes on College Campuses

You can check out our guide to the Summer Institute for the Gifted or all the info we have collected about Stanford's two summer programs.


Take Some Online College-Level Classes

Are you super confident in your abilities or interested in something specific you can't find anywhere else? Maybe the best thing for you to do is prove yourself on a whole another level! Just think, doing well on a college-level course will look great on your transcript, and you might even get college credit for it!


What's Next?

Need to improve your acquaintance with key literary terms? Use our articles on personification, imagery, rhetorical devices, point of view, literary elements, assonance, and iambic pentameter to aid you in your quest.

Still wrestling over whether AP or IB is better? Check out our guide to deciding between them.

Curious how your writing skills will apply to the SAT? Read about how to improve your SAT writing score, or better yet, how to get a perfect 800 and how to get a 12 on the SAT essay.

And don't forget to read about the ACT Writing test.



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Dr. Anna Wulick
About the Author

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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