We use cookies to personalize and improve your browsing experience. 

To learn more about how we store and use this data, visit our privacy policy here.

In evaluating your application, your high school transcript is almost always the most important ingredient. (Keep in mind that there are exceptions to this rule, especially for students in areas like art, music, and drama.) Among the many pieces of paper they review to make an admission decision, admission officers will probably receive a profile of your high school detailing the curriculum and the grading system — it may even list average grades for each class. Don’t worry, though. This comes from your high school, not from you!

Admission officials are skilled at understanding the discrepancies among schools and the ways that grades are awarded, recorded, etc. They know, for example, that at some schools, only students who walk on water will earn A’s, while at others, anyone who hands in their homework is considered an honors student. They can read between the lines of transcripts and school profiles to ascertain your school’s strengths, such as what percentage of graduates go on to four year colleges and what advanced classes are offered. These are the metrics they use for college acceptance.

Admission decision: Comparing apples to apples

They also recognize that good students at challenging, competitive high schools (public or private) may have lower grades and class ranks than their counterparts at easier ones, and that some students may not be ranked — or even graded — at all. When making an admissions decision, they have even learned to interpret the records of homeschooled students who submit detailed narratives in lieu of transcripts.

So what exactly are officials looking for? Many parents and students underestimate the importance of course choices. As early as middle school, the decisions you make about which classes to take can affect your eligibility for other classes later on and subsequently impact how your college application is evaluated, especially by the most selective institutions. Minimum high school graduation requirements vary, but most are less stringent than those expected at the more competitive colleges.

College acceptance: Know what you’re up against

Colleges normally have recommended secondary school programs, not imperative ones. It’s important to know early on what sort of college you hope to attend and what the requirements are to receive a positive college admission letter — and plan your high school curriculum accordingly. Work closely with your guidance counselor. They’ll become very familiar with you and your strengths and weaknesses during this process. But that’s OK — that’s what they’re there for.

To earn your diploma, many high schools require successful completion of a basic curriculum that looks pretty similar to the one below. Keep in mind that this course strategy is a bare minimum:

  • English: 4 full-year courses or equivalent
  • Social Studies/History: 2 years
  • Mathematics: 2 years
  • Science: 2 years
  • Physical education, health, and electives

Meeting these requirements (and doing only that) may get you into several not-so-selective schools. More competitive institutions will expect your transcripts to reflect curriculum that looks more like this:

  • English: 4 years
  • Social Studies/History: 3 years
  • Mathematics: 3 years
  • Science: at least 2, but preferably 3 years
  • Foreign Language: 3 years of 1 language or at least 2 years of 2 languages

Predictably, schools with a technology emphasis look more closely at your math and science backgrounds. If you’re considering a school like MIT, you probably need to take calculus before enrolling. If it’s not offered at your high school, find a class elsewhere (try your local community college)! If this is the direction you’re considering, you’ll need to hunker down for some tough classes.

The preparation required for admission will vary from college to college and even from school to school within a university. Sometimes, different branches within the same university system will have different requirements as well. In general, though, if you want to be competitive for the best schools, you should sign on for a strong four year academic program that should look like this:

  • English: 4 or more years
  • Social Studies/History: 3 or 4 years
  • Mathematics: 4 years through calculus (or at least through pre-calculus)
  • Science: at least 3 years (with 2 or more lab sciences).
  • Foreign Language: 4 years of at least one language

Score good college admission letters: Start now

Get a good start by getting out of the gate early. As tempting as it may be, high school is not the time to slow down — it’s the time to rev up. Your future is ahead of you!


Need professional help assembling your application? Try Big Envelope from Essay Edge. Our application pros will help with essay editing, messaging, and overall strategy to help you get into your top schools.