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Should I Focus on Getting a STEM-Specific Education in High School?

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The acronym STEM, referring to the academic and professional fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, has become a popular buzzword in the world of education. This is not without merit, as STEM-related careers are projected to experience rapid job growth over the next decade. Many STEM fields have strong, easily identifiable career prospects in prestigious and cutting-edge careers, such as biotech, tech startups, software development, and medicine. In fact, in 2016, nine out of 10 of the most desirable jobs ranked by CareerCast were STEM-related, ranging from audiologist to information security analyst.


With all the hype, you might be wondering if you should focus your academic efforts towards a higher education path in the STEM fields. Should you load up on STEM area classes during high school, even if doing so may shortchange other areas like the humanities, arts, or social sciences?


If you’re considering a focused pursuit of STEM classes and you’re curious as to what degree you should focus your work, this post is for you. Here, we outline the importance of a STEM education for intended STEM-majors and non-majors alike, its application in a competitive job market and beyond, and the bottom line for how to decide how much weight STEM classes will get in your high school class selections.


The Importance of a Background in STEM for Future STEM Majors

There’s no question that it’s a good idea to get a strong STEM background while you’re still in high school, especially if you plan to pursue STEM-related classes in college. Many schools are now devoting resources to STEM-specific programs or even creating entirely new departments within the school. There’s no doubt that without a solid STEM foundation in high school, you’ll be at a disadvantage to pursue any of these fields seriously in college.


So, what does this mean for your class selection in high school? Should you be dropping English classes to take more science classes? Which science classes should you choose?


In STEM classes, as in other subject areas, you should generally be taking the most challenging classes available to you if you want to be a competitive candidate for top-tier colleges. The specific STEM classes you take will vary depending on class availability at your school, but generally you will need to enroll in whichever track is specified as the most challenging one. This usually means you’ll be taking AP Calculus, AP Chemistry, and AP Physics, along with perhaps some coding classes or robotics extracurriculars. In addition to qualifying you as a competitive candidate, these challenging classes will often prepare you for college-level work in the STEM fields. They may also possibly mean you won’t have to take big, basic lecture classes to get started if you can place out of introductory classes through placement tests or AP scores.


The bottom line is if you know you want to pursue a STEM field, getting serious about it in high school is a good idea. That said, you should not do so at the expense of fulfilling your graduation requirements in other subject areas, such as English, and you shouldn’t drop core classes to facilitate your STEM path. While your early preparation and focus can set you apart as a college applicant and make your academic pursuits in college one step easier, don’t take your specialization so far that other subject areas suffer.


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The Importance of a Background in STEM for Non-STEM Majors

STEM classes are important even if you don’t intend to pursue a related major in college. Programming, familiarity with technology, basic engineering skills, or basic knowledge of fields like chemistry and biology could come in handy in many different fields and jobs.


These skills can set you apart in a competitive job market, even if the job isn’t directly related to STEM work. As more and more industries and businesses become dependent on technology, STEM skills are relevant in many different, unrelated fields. You become a more desirable job candidate if you know the field and also have skills in programming, web development, or other relevant technologies.


STEM-skills can even make you more self-sufficient outside of the workplace. Computer knowledge can help you to fix technical issues yourself, while basic chemistry can make you a better gardener, and engineering knowhow can help you with home or car repairs.


Even if you really dislike math or science or feel like they are subjects that just don’t come naturally to you, you should still work to develop basic proficiency in these areas. Although you may not plan a career focused on a STEM field, you should plan on a life that requires a basic knowledge of STEM skills.


Is It Possible to Focus Too Much On STEM Classes?

As with anything else, there can be too much of a good thing. If you’re interested in STEM fields, you should definitely pursue them and even prioritize them over your other classes, but you should not write off your other classes entirely.


For one thing, most high schools have core classes that are required for graduation. Without a set number of classes in English, history, and other subject areas, you might not be allowed to graduate. Be sure to check the requirements at your school so that you know what’s expected in advance.


Beyond that, many colleges also require or at least strongly recommend that you take a certain number of classes in various non-STEM areas in order to enter or even be a strong applicant. This ensures that you are a well-rounded candidate with skills that extend beyond the STEM field. Even if it’s not explicitly clear to you from application instructions, taking the most challenging classes available to you in multiple areas (not just STEM) matters to colleges. Ultimately, STEM professionals need to be able to communicate effectively through a variety of mediums and taking a broad base of classes ensures that you’re prepared to do this.


Finally, the important standardized tests (SATs or ACTs) required for many college applications are cross-curricular in nature. Even if you score perfectly on the math or science portions of the test, your overall score will suffer significantly if you can’t also perform well on the humanities sections. Often, your overall score is used as an initial screening tool for college admissions, so if it doesn’t meet a certain threshold, the admissions committee may never even see your perfect score on the math section.


So, How Much Should I Prioritize STEM Classes in High School?

This is a difficult question because the answer will vary depending on your personal strengths, goals, and other priorities. Ultimately, everyone should give STEM-classes some serious consideration and time because in an increasingly tech-based world, this skill set will always be of some value.


Obviously, if you plan to pursue STEM in college, you should take advantage of your high school’s STEM class offerings. Take as many as you can without comprising your work in other fields. Also, join STEM-related clubs or other activities. You can be STEM-focused without having to jeopardize your studies in other subject areas.


If you don’t want to pursue STEM in college or you’re simply not yet sure, you should consider STEM as one of many options. There are many valuable, interesting, and necessary fields of study available, especially while you’re still in high school. Take advantage of the opportunities that high school gives you to learn broadly, explore different fields, and become as well-rounded as you are specialized in your studies. Lay the foundation for a basic STEM background in case you change your mind later or need those skills in life or work, but don’t focus solely on STEM if your interests and talents lie elsewhere.


Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.