How to Pick Your High School Courses Freshman and Sophomore Years
As a freshman or sophomore in high school, you’ll need to start the process of picking classes that will have an effect on your high school career. While choosing classes may seem confusing at first and you may be at a loss for how to start, with some help you’ll be able to figure out which courses are best for you. Read this guide to find out not only how to pick your high school courses, but also how to view your education and high school experience year by year to set yourself up for lifelong educational success.
No Right or Wrong Course Load
Just as everyone has different interests, hobbies, and goals for their education, every student will have a different course load and follow a different course selection process. For example, you may be more interested in a specialized, math-heavy course load during your freshman year of high school since you plan to major in engineering in college.
Or, you may not have an idea of what you want to do yet, and tend towards a schedule of non-specialized classes. (To be clear, here at CollegeVine, we do not recommend specializing until your junior or senior year.) Pursuing either of these two paths would results in very different course loads.
Alternatively, your course selection may be influenced by your extracurricular activities and other out-of-school commitments. When deciding how many AP-level classes you want to take, you will need to consider how much time you can dedicate to homework after school. If you have many demanding and time-consuming responsibilities outside of your academics, you may not be able to take an entire course load of APs.
Additionally, your course load (and the considerations you make when planning it) will change year by year throughout high school. While it’s smart to start out taking many different classes to get an idea of what interests you, by the time you reach your junior or senior year, you should try to take classes that reflect interest or talent in a specific subject area if possible.
Everyone’s interests are varied, and some students decide what they want to study and specialize in earlier than others. For these reasons, you can’t expect to follow the “right” or “wrong” course load path, so long as you’ve given yourself the opportunity to explore different interests.
It may be tempting to specialize in one subject and ignore the rest, but the truth is early in high school is not the time to focus too closely on any one subject. You will have a lot of time left after high school to specialize in certain areas, and your main focus right now should be building a solid educational foundation by learning about many different subjects to better inform what you study when you specialize in college and beyond.
Even when you start to take more specific classes in your later years, be sure to always take a solid foundation of core subjects: English, social studies, math, science, and a foreign language, if possible. Many schools, including public universities, have requirements for enrollment that often involve at least three to four years of studies in the core subjects. Plus, even if you are really interested in one subject or subject area now, your interests may change later. In that case, you want to have a solid grasp on all subjects so that it is possible for you to change your path of study.
No matter what, you should choose rigorous classes with good teachers who will help you master the material. Your goal should be to learn a lot about a lot. And remember that “rigorous” means different things for different people — it can’t be boiled down to whether a class is advanced or not. Instead, you should seek to to challenge yourself regardless of how objectively “difficult” the courses you take may be.
Your Course Load Will Depend on Your School
Course loads are not the same at all schools. Yours may have different “tracks” for classes — this may look like an honors versus regular track, a seven classes versus six class track, or a humanities versus STEM-focused track. If your school has these or similar options, you should meet with your guidance counselor to make sure you understand all of your options (both what the track will mean for you now, and how it will affect your class choices later on in high school) and to figure out which one is best for your needs and goals.
If your school offers a grace period to drop classes (for example, there might be no penalty for dropping or switching a class during the first three weeks of the school year), it is usually better to start with more classes and then drop one if it isn’t working out. This is because it is a lot easier to drop a class than to join a class late, and sometimes teachers will not even allow you to join a class after it has started. You should approach classes with multiple difficulty levels in the same way: if possible, start with the harder level and only drop down if you find it unmanageable.
Additionally, get in the habit of asking teachers about their classes before your sign up for them. This will help you both now and later on in college. Good things to find out are what they expect you to know beforehand (prerequisites), what kind of work is expected for the class, and what they want you to learn from the class. Finding out this information beforehand will assist you in determining if the class will be a good fit for you. Also, you should ask former students for their opinions on the class to get a student’s perspective.
Important Questions to Ask Yourself
You should view your education as a process that is constantly changing, and one that calls for regular review. For this reason, at the beginning and end of each school year (and if you’re feeling it, the middle, too) you should evaluate what is and isn’t working, so as to better inform your class choices.
Helpful questions you should ask yourself about each class include (but are not limited to): What have I learned from this class? What new questions do I have from taking this class, and what class can I take next to answer them? Am I covering a broad range of topics and pushing my comfort zone so that I truly am learning new things, or am I studying the same thing over and over again? How does what I am learning now prepare me for more advanced classes and the future? Can I talk about what I have learned?
Also, keep in mind the kinds of colleges you might wish to attend. What sorts of classes will be necessary to gain admittance? Are you taking the right kinds of courses? The reality is, if you want to get into a top-tier school, you will need to take advanced courses, like AP or IB classes.
That said, if there is a class that you really want to take but it doesn’t seem like the “right” kind of class for a college application, you should still take it. You can always explain this choice on your application if you feel nervous or unsure about how it will be perceived, and colleges tend to appreciate intention and thoughtfulness about your classes (and, by extension, your education).
For example, you may be deciding between AP U.S. History and a class on African American history. If you really want to study African American history (and this class will give you a chance to carefully examine it), this may be a better choice for you, even though it is not an AP.
When choosing your high school courses, it is important to pick classes that are challenging, rigorous, and will demonstrate to colleges that you worked really hard in high school. At the same time, it is also important to choose classes that are interesting to you and inspire you to learn more.
Make sure you cover a lot of subject areas in your studies and don’t get too specialized. Now is the time to learn a lot about a broad spectrum of subjects. View your education and time in high school as unfolding and constantly changing. It is likely you will have a new perspective on what you want to do with your high school experience every year, so reflect often and always be open to change.
Check out our CollegeVine Mentorship Program to be paired with a successful college student who has been through it all — high school course selection and more — and can help you achieve your goals.
Want more tips on improving your academic profile?
We'll send valuable information to help you strengthen your profile and get ready for college admissions.