High School Course Requirements for College Admissions

Learn What Core Courses You Need to Get into College

Teenager doing homework
Completing a core curriculum in high school is essential for admission to college. Marc Romanelli / Getty Images

While admissions standards vary greatly from one schools to another, nearly all colleges and universities will be looking to see that applicants have completed a standard core curriculum. As you choose classes in high school, these core courses should always get top priority. Students without these classes may be automatically disqualified for admission (even at open admissions colleges), or they may be admitted provisionally and need to take remedial courses to gain an appropriate level of college readiness.

How Many Years of Each Subject Do Colleges Require?

In general, a typical high school core curriculum looks something like this:

  • English: 4 years
  • Foreign Language: 2 to 3 years
  • Math: 3 years
  • Science: 2 - 3 years (including lab science)
  • Social Studies (including history): 2 to 3 years
  • Art: 1 year

To learn more about requirements for each subject area, these articles can help: English | Foreign Language | Math | Science | Social Science

How Do Colleges View High School Courses When Reviewing Applications?

When colleges calculate your GPA for admissions purposes, they will often ignore the GPA on your transcript and focus solely on your grades in these core subject areas. Grades for physical education, music ensembles, and other non-core courses are not as useful for predicting your level of college readiness as these core courses. This doesn't mean that electives aren't important--colleges do want to see that you have a breadth of interests and experiences--but they simply don't provide a good window into an applicant's ability to handle rigorous college courses.

Core course requirements vary from state to state, and many of the more selective colleges will want to see a high school record that goes well beyond the core (read "What is a good academic record?"). AP, IB, and Honors courses are a must at the most selective colleges. Also, the strongest applicants to highly selective colleges will have four years of math (including calculus), four years of science, and four years of a foreign language.

If your high school doesn't offer advanced language courses or calculus, the admissions folks will typically learn this from your counselor's report, and this won't be held against you. The admissions folks want to see that you have taken the most challenging courses available to you. High schools vary significantly in what challenging courses they are able to offer. 

Note that many colleges with holistic admissions do not have specific course requirements for admission. The Yale University admissions website, as an example, states, "Yale does not have any specific entrance requirements (for example, there is no foreign language requirement for admission to Yale). But we do look for students who have taken a balanced set of the rigorous classes available to them. Generally speaking, you should try to take courses each year in English, science, math, the social sciences, and foreign language."

That said, students without a basic core curriculum would have a hard time gaining entrance to one of the Ivy League schools. Colleges want to admit students who will succeed, and applicants without proper core courses in high school often struggle in college.

Sample Course Requirements for Admissions

The table below shows minimum course recommendations for a sampling of different types of selective colleges.

Always keep in mind that the "minimum" simply means you won't be disqualified immediately. The strongest applicants typically exceed the minimum requirements.

CollegeEnglishMathScienceSocial StudiesLanguageNotes
Davidson4 yrs3 yrs2 yrs2 yrs2 yrs20 units required; 4 yrs science and math through calculus recommended
MIT4 yrsthrough calculusbio, chem, physics2 yrs2 yr 
Ohio State4 yrs3 yrs3 yrs2 yrs2 yrsart required; more math, social science, language recommended
Pomona4 yrs4 yrs2 yrs (3 for science majors)2 yrs3 yrsCalculus recommended
Princeton4 yrs4 yrs2 yrs2 yrs4 yrsAP, IB, and Honors courses recommended
Rhodes4 yrsthrough Algebra II2 yrs (3 preferred)2 yrs2 yrs16 or more units required
UCLA4 yrs3 yrs2 yrs2 yrs2 yrs (3 recommended)1 yr art and another college prep elective required

In general, it isn't difficult to meet these requirements if you put in a little effort in planning in high school.

The bigger challenge is for students applying to highly selective schools that are actually looking for students who have pushed themselves well beyond minimum core requirements.