College and Career Planning / Math - Science - STEM / Reading / Technology / Writing / Ages 14-18

How to Choose High School Courses Like a Navigator

Here’s what to consider when your teen chooses their high school courses.

One of the many ways high school is a big leap from K-8 is that students have a lot more freedom to choose their courses (especially after the first year). It's exciting, but it can also be confusing.

Their guidance counselor will be able to help, of course. But it’s a good idea for parents to understand the options, too. How do our Navigators recommend choosing courses to give your teen a great high school experience that prepares them for what they want to do in the future?

Here are our top tips:

  • Understand your graduation requirements. All schools have graduation requirements (which, in public schools, meet state-level requirements). Before your high schooler starts choosing courses, they’ll need to understand those requirements and what they mean for each year of school: how many courses they’ll need to take in each core subject, any mandatory courses, and where subjects like physical education and health fit in. Most of the time, the first two years of high school will include more required courses, while the last two years will have more room for choice.
  • Set some goals for after high school at the start of high school. By 10th grade or so, high schoolers usually have to commit to a pathway to graduation—for example, one that focuses on building skills for a particular trade, a university prep track, or coursework geared toward continuing their education. So it’s a good idea for students to think about what they hope to do after high school so they can choose their courses wisely. (This doesn’t mean a student who follows a technical or trade path can’t decide to go to a four-year college—they absolutely can! But they might have some catching up to do at the end of high school or once they get to college.) Your teen doesn’t have to know exactly what they want to do later in life. (Seriously!) But thinking through possibilities for how they might want to continue their education after high school and the types of careers they’re interested in can help them choose the right classes, as well as seek out other valuable opportunities like job shadowing, volunteer projects, extracurriculars related to their interests, or apprenticeships.
  • Consider the future when you pick today’s classes. Whatever your high schooler’s goals for their future, they should consider those goals when they choose courses. If you have a kid who is thinking about a career in healthcare, taking four years of science courses during high school—including biology and chemistry—is a good idea. Students who are looking ahead to arts programs will probably want to build a portfolio for their chosen medium, which might mean taking advanced visual or performing arts classes. And while traditional trades like plumbing, automotive mechanics, carpentry, or cosmetology can still be great options, many schools are offering trade pathways in newer (and often high-paying) industries like technology, computer design, and business. Courses like HTML coding or Photoshop can be great choices for teens who are interested in those fields.
“Your teen doesn’t have to know exactly what they want to do later in life. (Seriously!) But thinking through possibilities for how they might want to continue their education after high school and the types of careers they’re interested in can help them choose the right classes.”
  • Avoid courses that review middle school if you can. Some schools will offer overview courses that review material most students already learned in middle school. (This is especially true in science: Look for courses with names like “integrated science” or “general science.”) While this might sound like a good idea, these courses can limit students later in high school. In science, for example, students who spent an entire year reviewing the basics will only have three more years to cover different key areas of science like biology, physics, or chemistry. Instead of taking courses that review middle school content, your student might be better off with a course that focuses on study skills or college prep.
  • Know what types of advanced courses your school offers. Most schools will offer courses deemed “honors” or “college prep,” but those names don’t necessarily tell you much—these are mostly just regular classes that might move at a somewhat faster pace than non-honors courses in the same subject. Advanced Placement (or AP) classes are high-level courses in a range of subjects that culminate in national exams administered by the College Board, the same people who run the SAT. These courses are meaningfully different from regular honors classes, because a high score on an AP exam might allow your high schooler to skip an introductory level college course in that subject. Not all high schools offer AP courses, but many of them do. If you have a teen who thinks they’ll want to apply to college, taking a few AP courses during their junior and senior years is a great idea. (Some schools also offer International Baccalaureate classes, which are also advanced course options that can allow high schoolers to earn college credits.)
  • If your high schooler “runs out” of course options in a certain subject area, check out alternative options. Not all schools offer the same range of advanced courses, and this can be tricky: What happens to students who want something more advanced—like AP Calculus or Physics—only to find that those courses don’t exist at their school? In cases like this, you have a few options. Many high schools will allow students to take courses at local community colleges (this is sometimes called “dual enrollment”). Your high schooler should connect with their guidance counselor to find out what options are available to them. Another possibility is an independent study, where your high schooler will work with a teacher to work their way through more advanced work.