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A Guide to High School Classes

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Reuben Stern in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream and read The Best Classes to Take in High School for more info. 


What’s covered?

• Building your class schedule: An overview
• Why is choosing classes important?
• Types of classes you’ll encounter in high school
• How does your course load stack up?



Building your class schedule: An overview


Your high school classes play an enormous role in your college decision. Admissions officers want to see a strong GPA, of course, but they also want you to be taking courses that correlate to your academic interests and future goals. 


You might be wondering: Which classes should you be taking in high school? Are certain courses better for certain majors? What factors should impact your decision? Find out why choosing courses is so important and what types of classes are available to you in high school. Also, be sure to check out The Best Classes to Take in High School to learn about what colleges are looking for in your class schedule.


Why is choosing classes important?


Today’s high schools offer far more comprehensive curriculi than the standard college prep courses. Now, students have the option of pursuing a range of levels and topics, including rigorous, college-level courses. You might even have the opportunity to earn college credit while you’re still in high school.


It’s critical to choose the right classes and craft a strong applicant profile that correlates to your strengths and interests. You also want to demonstrate that you’re willing to challenge yourself and succeed.


Types of classes you’ll encounter in high school


What are standard vs. honors classes?


The most common high school courses you’ll encounter are standard college prep courses. These are the basic classes designed to prepare you for college-level work, such as Algebra I, World History, French I, and so on. These are the classes most freshmen and sophomores will take, although some underclassmen might have the opportunity to pursue more advanced coursework.


Honors classes are slightly more advanced than standard courses, diving a bit more deeply into the subject matter. Because they are more rigorous than standard college-prep courses, colleges tend to regard them more favorably. However, they are not standardized, so the rigor can vary considerably from high school to high school. 


What are AP classes? Can you self-study APs?


At many high schools, Advanced Placement (AP) classes are the highest course levels offered. AP courses culminate in comprehensive exams, administered by the College Board. 


APs are meant to pack a semester’s worth of college material into a year-long high school course. In terms of rigor and intensity, they are meant to match those of the corresponding college-level courses. If you earn a sufficient score on your exam (graded on a scale of 1-5), you may have the option of earning college credit or placing out of introductory college courses, although this varies from institution to institution.


While the exams themselves are standardized and the College Board distributes syllabi with the material high school teachers should cover, the courses themselves can vary from school to school. Some can be extremely difficult, while others may be less demanding.


You may also self-study the course if your school doesn’t offer it or you can’t fit it into your schedule. That way, you can still take the exam. A 3 on the exam is considered passing. Some colleges that offer credit for certain APs will award it for a 3 or above, while, more frequently, they will award credit for a 4 or 5.


AP vs. IB


The International Baccalaureate (IB) is less common in U.S. high schools. IBs are typically the most difficult courses available to high school students. 


The IB Diploma requires completing certain courses and fulfilling additional academic and extracurricular requirements, including specific courses and research projects. Many high schools that offer the Diploma and courses are very selective schools that require an exam to attend. Few schools offer both AP and IB courses, although they do exist.


Like APs, IB courses culminate in cumulative exams at the end of the year, and you may have the opportunity to receive college credit. But the IB curriculum takes a broader, more holistic approach to the content. Moreover, if you attend an IB school, your courses will be part of a larger framework, where you are participating in a full program rather than one-off courses. Moreover, the exam is based on open responses, essay, and data response questions, along with teacher assessments of classwork, lab work, and oral exams.


There are also different levels of difficulty offered within the IB program. All courses are considered college level, but they could be even more advanced than introductory college courses in some cases.


Dual enrollment


A final option is dual enrollment. Some students have the option of taking courses at a local community college or four-year institution. Some high schools have an official program for dual enrollment, but it’s also possible to do this on an individual basis. This is a good option for students who have niche interests or don’t have access to more advanced courses through their high schools, as well as those who have exhausted the offerings at their schools and want to consider pursuing the subject.


How does your course load stack up?


AP, IB, honors, dual-enrollment and standard courses all affect your chances of getting into a top college like Harvard. Are you building a balanced yet rigorous class schedule — filled with courses that complete your strengths and demonstrate that you’re challenging yourself?


Try CollegeVine’s free chancing engine to find out how your course schedule impacts your chances of admissions to hundreds of colleges across the United States. The tool will assess your course rigor, along with additional factors, to provide a personalized assessment of your likelihood of admission to top schools. You will also receive free recommendations on how to ramp up your course load and improve your academic profile.

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At CollegeVine, experts host weekly livestreams on college admissions topics, including application advice, essay writing tips, and college information sessions. To register or check out more livestreams, visit www.collegevine.com/livestreams.