High School Course Requirements for College Admissions

Learn What Core Courses You Need to Get into College

High school students raising their hands in class.
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While admissions standards vary greatly from one school 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.

Standard Requirements for College

You'll want to check the specific requirements of the colleges to which you are applying, but schools will typically want to see you have completed the following:

High School Courses Required for College Admission
Subject Years of Study
 English 4 years
 Foreign Language 2 to 3 years 
 Math 3 years 
 Science 2 to 3 years including a lab science 
 Social Studies and History 2 to 3 years 
 Art 1 year 

Keep in mind that the required courses for admission differ from the recommended courses. At selective colleges and universities, additional years of math, science, and language will be necessary for you to be a competitive applicant.

High School and College Admission Requirements

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, as 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 strong high school academic record that goes well beyond the core. Advanced Placement, IB, and Honors courses are a must to be competitive at the most selective colleges. In most cases, 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 the types of challenging courses they can provide. 

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 College 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.

College English Math Science Social Studies Language Notes
Davidson College 4 yrs 3 yrs 2 yrs 2 yrs 2 yrs 20 units required; 4 years science and math through calculus recommended
MIT 4 yrs through calculus bio, chem, physics 2 yrs 2 yr
Ohio State University 4 yrs 3 yrs 3 yrs 2 yrs 2 yrs art required; more math, social science, language recommended
Pomona College 4 yrs 4 yrs 2 yrs (3 for science majors) 2 yrs 3 yrs Calculus recommended
Princeton University 4 yrs 4 yrs 2 yrs 2 yrs 4 yrs AP, IB, and Honors courses recommended
Rhodes College 4 yrs through Algebra II 2 yrs (3 preferred) 2 yrs 2 yrs 16 or more units required
UCLA 4 yrs 3 yrs 2 yrs 2 yrs 2 yrs (3 preferred) 1 year art and another college prep elective required

In general, it isn't difficult to meet these requirements if you put in a little effort as you plan your high school courses with your guidance counselor. The bigger challenge is for students applying to highly selective schools that want to see high school coursework that goes well beyond minimum core requirements.

Always keep in mind that your high school record is the most important part of your college application. When selecting classes, you may be handicapping yourself on the college admissions front if you take the easy path.


"Advice on Selecting High School Courses." Yale University, 2019.

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Grove, Allen. "High School Course Requirements for College Admissions." ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2021, thoughtco.com/high-school-course-requirements-college-admissions-788858. Grove, Allen. (2021, February 27). High School Course Requirements for College Admissions. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/high-school-course-requirements-college-admissions-788858 Grove, Allen. "High School Course Requirements for College Admissions." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/high-school-course-requirements-college-admissions-788858 (accessed March 31, 2023).