What School Subjects Do You Need in High School?

Illustration of students in various settings

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee 

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While some high school subjects are required, others can be selected. Finally being given more of a choice in what a student studies can be freeing, but also overwhelming. What courses are best? It's most important to first consider what is needed to graduate. Then, parents and teens can work together to choose subjects that not only engage their interests but also have their future plans and goals in mind.

For example, students who plan to go to college may be required to take more years of a foreign language or other classes required by the schools they are interested in. A student who is interested in pursuing a career in construction may want to take an industrial arts class.

School Subjects You Need to Graduate

Ideally, teens should start high school with a basic plan of the classes they will need to take in order to graduate. Every state has different requirements for obtaining a high school diploma, and each school varies greatly in what they offer to give kids a chance to fulfill them.

The school's guidance/counseling department can help students understand the requirements for graduation and how their coursework aligns with them.

The basic requirements generally include the following:

English/Language Arts

Studying the English language and literature is an important part of high school for every student regardless of their post-school plans. In addition to studying important pieces of literature, English classes teach teens about writing and speaking.

Most states require four years of English or language arts classes. The main English classes in high school include:

  • Literature
  • Speech
  • Writing or Composition


In high school, students dig into several different types of math. Algebra and geometry are required at most high schools, and students may choose to take advanced math classes if they are offered.

Most states require three or four years of math coursework in high school. The main math classes in high school include:

  • Algebra
  • Algebra II
  • Geometry
  • Statistics
  • Trigonometry and/or Calculus


Basic life sciences (e.g. biology) and physical sciences (chemistry, physics, etc.) are required at most high schools. These classes often include lab components that allow students to perform hands-on experiments.

Most states require two to three years of science coursework in high school. These may include:

  • Biology (typically has advanced class options)
  • Chemistry (typically has advanced class options)
  • Earth or Space sciences
  • Physics (typically has advanced class options)

Social Studies/History

Understanding how the world works is important for young adults. In high school, students will study history and government and learn about how social studies affects their lives.

Most states require three to four years of social studies coursework in high school, including:

  • Economics
  • Geography
  • U.S. Government
  • U.S. History
  • World History

Foreign Languages

Learning a second language is important in today's global world. While many high schools offer foreign language courses, only 11 states require students to take a foreign language course. High school students can fill these requirements by learning the basics of at least one foreign language, and they may be able to choose to take advanced classes to learn more.

Common languages offered in high school include:

  • French
  • Japanese
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Spanish

Other possible language offerings include Russian, Latin, American Sign Language, and German.

Physical Education and Health

Physical education and health classes can teach high schoolers how to care for their body's fitness and nutritional needs. Many states require at least one unit of P.E. to graduate. Other states have P.E. as an elective.

School Subjects for College Preparation

Students planning to go to college should consider how colleges will look at their courses during the application process. Grade point average (GPA) is important, but coursework should also demonstrate academic rigor.

When planning, it can be helpful to balance standard high school courses with some that are more challenging. Additionally, students can do this—and even get a head start on college—by taking advanced placement (AP) or college classes.

AP Classes

AP classes are more rigorous courses that teach subjects at an introductory college level. Some of the most common AP courses that are available include Calculus AB, U.S. History, English Literature, Biology, Statistics, Chemistry, and Psychology.

Students who take AP classes have the option to take an AP test in the spring. If they get a certain score, they can get credit for the course at many colleges.

College Credit Courses

Many high schools offer opportunities to gain college credit, and the counseling department can inform students about any such offerings as well.

These may be online or in-person classes through programs offered by colleges and universities, and they may be taught by a professor or a high school teacher. Dual-credit programs allow students to fulfill their high school requirements while obtaining some college credits free of charge.


In addition to the basic classes, there are usually plenty of opportunities to take electives in various areas of study. These can not only broaden a student's academic knowledge but also teach them valuable life skills.

In some cases, a student may be given the freedom to choose one class from a select group of options required in the school's curriculum. In others, a student may have room in their schedule to choose to study something simply based on their interests and aspirations.

Examples of elective classes may include:

  • Arts, such as music, photography, or ceramics
  • Computer applications, graphic design, or web design
  • Business, law
  • Cooking and other life skills
  • Physical education
  • Psychology
  • Trade field studies such as auto mechanics or nursing
  • Personal finance

Students on a vocational track may be able to gain some hands-on learning in fields such as metalworks and woodworking. Many schools even offer the opportunity to gain certificates or licenses that will help them in their future careers.

A Word From Verywell

Choosing high school classes requires planning both as a student enters school and throughout their high school experience. The right classes are challenging and engaging, but not unrealistically rigorous or overwhelming.

An ideal schedule can help a student succeed, enjoy learning, and have a good academic experience while preparing them for their future plans, whatever they may be.

It's important for teens and their parents to talk about their career aspirations. Discuss interest areas and review their schedule together to help them make the most out of their school's offerings.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Education Commission of the States. 50-state comparison.

  2. American Councils for International Education. The National K-16 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report.

  3. College Board. Program Summary Report.

By Denise Witmer
Denise Witmer is a freelance writer and mother of three children, who has authored several books and countless articles on parenting teens since 1997.