What School Subjects Do You Need in High School?

Basic high school subjects

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee 

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Choosing school subjects can be challenging, but understanding what's available and what is needed to graduate can make things easier. Parents and teens will want to pick classes with their eyes on their future plans as well.

The courses teens take will vary depending on their plans beyond high school and their personal interests. 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. Or, for example, a student who plans to major in engineering may want to take more math and science classes to prepare for college.

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 type of classes they offer. There are, however, a number of classes that are available, and perhaps even mandatory, in most high schools. The basic requirements generally include the following:

English/Language Arts

Studying the English language and literature is an important part of high school. 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

Mathematics

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. 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

Science

Basic biology and chemistry are required at most high schools. These classes often include lab components that allow students to perform hands-on experiments. Most states require three to four years of science coursework in high school. These may include:

  • Biology (typically has advanced classes)
  • Chemistry (typically has advanced classes)
  • Earth or Space Sciences
  • Physics (typically has advanced classes)

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. High school students are often required to learn the basics of at least one foreign language and they can choose to take advanced classes to learn more. Common languages offered in high school include:

  • French
  • Japanese
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Spanish

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

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 their 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 AP or college classes.

AP Classes

AP or advanced placement classes can often be used for college credit. These are more rigorous courses that teach subjects at an introductory college level. Students who take AP classes have the option to take an AP test in the spring. If they get a passing score, they can use get credit for the course at many colleges. Some of the most common AP courses that are available include World History, Literature, Psychology, U.S. History, and Biology.

College Credits

Many high schools offer opportunities to gain college credit. Talk to your school counselor about the offerings at your high school. Some schools are able to offer online or in-person classes through programs offered by colleges and universities as well. Some high schools also have programs that allow students to take certain college classes that will also grant them high school credit. These dual credit programs help students gain some college credits free of charge. 

Electives

In addition to the basic classes, there are usually plenty of opportunities to take electives in various areas of study, which allow students to take classes that are related to their interests. Some may be required in the school's curriculum and some are electives that students may choose. Students might want to choose certain courses depending on their future goals, such as law, business, film, or education-related classes. 

These classes may include:

  • Arts, such as music, photography, or ceramics
  • Computer applications, graphic design, or web design
  • Physical education
  • Psychology
  • Trade field studies such as auto mechanics or nursing classes

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

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.

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  1. American Councils for International Education. The National K-16 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report. Published March 2017.