High school course selection matters on college applications  

Throughout their high school years, students are making decisions that will ultimately impact the success of their college applications. Most notably, they are choosing the high school courses they will take, and the level of difficulty of those courses.

There are certainly guidelines required by the state of New Jersey, including four years of English and Physical Education/Health, three years of Math, Science and Social Studies, and an array of courses in World Languages, Visual or Performing Arts, and Financial Literacy. But students are given great latitude as to the specific courses taken within these fields and the level of rigorousness of these courses. Also, students with the goal of enrolling in an elite college or university should seek to surpass the minimum high school graduation requirements.

Regarding Math, for example, students are required to take Algebra I, Geometry, and one higher level course. But many colleges strongly favor students who have studied both Pre-Calculus and Calculus during their high school years, particularly if they will be pursuing a major in Business, Engineering, Architecture, or other math-intensive field. Such students need to carefully plan their four-year course of study, as they may need to double-up on Math during one high school year or take a summer course for which they will be given credit.

Electives are another area in which high school students have a great deal of latitude and an opportunity to impress college admissions officers. Students considering a major in Business or Economics should study Macro and Microeconomics during their high school years. Those seeking a career in Psychology should take a course in that field. Students planning a future as Physical Therapists should choose to study Anatomy & Physiology. There is often a supplementary essay on college applications asking students to explain why they have chosen their particular major. By taking a high school course in the field, they will be able to rationalize their choice.


Students should pursue the most rigorous course of study for their abilities, focusing on their areas of interest. Most local high schools offer an array of AP courses, for which students may be awarded college credits based on their performance on end-of-year AP exams. Students considering a pre-med track in college would do well to undertake AP Biology and/or AP Chemistry. Students anticipating a future career in law may favor AP Government & Politics and/or AP US History.

The courses chosen by high school students, and their level of rigor, will certainly be noticed by college admissions officers.

by Susan Alaimo