written by
Julia Riew

How to Choose the Best High School Courses for College Applications

Admissions Tips 6 min read
From the exhibition
Photographer: Ivan Aleksic | Source: Unsplash

In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com admissions experts Julia R. and Finn B. share tips on how to choose the best high school courses for college applications. For more guidance on course selection and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


What classes should I take for college applications?”
“Is it more important to choose courses that interest me or courses that will look good on my transcript?”
“Is it better for college applicants to take hard courses and get worse grades, or easier courses and get good grades?”
“Which courses look “good” to admissions officers?”

As the school year winds to a close, next year’s course schedule might be the last thing on your mind. However, it’s important to consider your options early

From freshman to senior year, the classes you take in high school can have a major impact on your college admissions results. Including grades and GPA, there are a number of different considerations to keep in mind when selecting your courses.

1. Find high school courses that truly interest you

Often, students ask, “Is it more important to choose courses that interest me or courses that will look good on my transcript?”

The simple answer is both. It’s important to take courses that offer academic rigor but also allow you to explore your passions.

You should never take a course solely because you think it will help bolster your high school transcript — students often fall into this trap. As with many parts of the college admissions process, it’s easy to convince yourself that you think you want to do something.

Be honest with yourself. First of all, you’ll likely earn better grades in courses that genuinely engage you, which will ultimately look better on your transcript. Additionally, once you’ve chosen your classes, you’re stuck with them for a whole year (or at least a semester). So choose wisely.

Strive for balance. Yes, it’s important to take courses that challenge you academically. However, it’s equally important to explore different subjects to learn more about your interests and expand your horizons. If you’re mildly interested in mechanical engineering, take AP Physics, even if you’ve heard that the teacher is tough. If that Acting & Improvisation class piques your interest, don’t shy away just because it doesn’t seem like a core academic challenge. That class might help you grow in ways you never expected, and it might just end up being the topic of one of your supplemental essays.

2. Fulfill your high school’s graduation requirements

In addition to identifying the courses that interest you, you need to pay heed to your graduation requirements. Different states and different schools will have different requirements for graduation — you don’t want to delay attending your dream school because you forgot to take a Health class.

As you choose your schedule, chat with your guidance counselor to learn which courses you need to take to graduate. Your counselor will also write one of your college letters of recommendation, so this is a great opportunity to get to know them better. Your guidance counselor may also have course recommendations based on your interests and admissions candidate profile.

If talking to a counselor is not possible, you can also often look up graduation requirements on your school or state’s website.

If you’re looking to get more help or struggling to make a decision, consider asking a parent or mentor, or signing up for a personal advising service such as CollegeAdvisor.com.

3. Get good grades by balancing your strengths and weaknesses

“Is it better for college applicants to take hard courses and get worse grades, or easier courses and get good grades?”

The blunt truth is that it’s best to take hard courses and get good grades. You should always aim to score top grades. Easier said than done, of course. The trick to doing this successfully is being honest with yourself and knowing your strengths as well as your weaknesses.

Be strategic. Remember that none of your courses exist in isolation: Admissions Officers will evaluate all of your classes as a whole.

Note your strengths and weaknesses — everyone has them. For example, if you’re confident in your mathematical prowess but shy away from writing expository essays, take AP Calculus and Advanced Physics, then balance these with a less rigorous English class.

Challenge yourself at your own level in order to put yourself in the best position for college applications.

4. Build a flexible yet rigorous strategy

Think ahead. Build a four-year course plan that makes sense for you.

At some schools, you must earn a certain GPA or benchmark grade in order to pass into advanced-level courses. Keep this in mind when planning out the next few years. Additionally, know that you may need to alter your plan if you earn an unexpected grade.

As a general rule, you should maximize the perceived rigor of the courses you take. This means taking AP classes, IB classes, and general college-level courses when available (If these courses aren’t available at your school, don’t worry, as you will only be judged within the context of your school).

While maximizing this rigor, make sure you’re still taking on a reasonable course load. It can be tempting to overload yourself with difficult courses in high school. Don’t overextend yourself — the college application process is stressful, and maintaining balance is key to preserving your mental health.

5. Build a candidate profile through your courses

A candidate profile is essentially a portrait of who you are as a college applicant. This includes (but is not limited to) your transcript, extracurriculars, essays, and recommendation letters.

When planning your courses, it’s important to consider how you might ultimately present your candidate profile, especially if you already have an idea of what you want to pursue later in life.

If you want to study engineering, for example, then you should probably take AP Physics or the equivalent and push yourself in challenging mathematics courses. Likewise, if your dream is to become a lawyer, you should select relevant courses such as AP English or AP US History.

And if you don’t know what you want to study, that’s totally fine, too! In most of your courses, even though it might not always seem like it, you will be honing real-life skills that will help you regardless of whatever career path you ultimately take. You might even discover that you’re not as interested in one subject as you thought you were and more interested in another.

6. Plan to leave time for college applications — or get a head start

Finally, when setting up your courses for senior year, keep in mind that applying to college is a very involved process and will consume a lot of time — often equivalent to that of an entire class.

If you have some spare time this summer, spend it drafting up a few of those college essays. It’s tedious work, but you’ll thank yourself later.

The college application process can be a tricky, confusing process, but we’re here to help.


This essay on choosing high school courses was written by Julia R. (Harvard ‘22) and Finn B. (Harvard ‘22). If you want to get help with your college applications from Julia, Finn, or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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