How Many Years of Social Studies Do You Need?

Learn Social Studies Requirements for College Admissions

History Chalk Text on Blackboard
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Choosing the high school courses that will best prepare you for success in college can be a difficult process, and social studies, though an important subject for a strong college application, is easily overlooked, particularly if you aren't planning to enter a liberal arts program. Many students are much more concerned about their math, science, and foreign language requirements.

Requirements for high school preparation in social studies vary significantly among different colleges and universities, and the term 'social studies' can mean something different to different schools.

What Courses Count as "Social Studies"?

"Social studies" is a broad term that encompasses fields of study related to culture, government, civics, and the general interactions of people within a complex national and global context. War, technology, law, religion, and immigration all have a place within the category of "social studies."

High school classes in social studies typically include United States History, European History, World History, U.S. Government, Human Geography, and Psychology. Keep in mind, however, that colleges are free to define "social studies" as broadly or narrowly as they choose.

What Social Studies Classes Do Colleges Require?

Most competitive colleges recommend at least two to three years of high school social studies, which generally includes history as well as courses in government or civics. Here are some specific recommendations for high school social studies coursework from several different institutions:

  • Carleton College, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, requires three or more years of social science. The college does not specify what courses it prefers students to take under the label of "social science."
  • Harvard University, the prestigious Ivy League school, is more specific in its recommendation. The university wants to see that students have taken at least two, and preferably three years of courses that include American history, European history, and one other advanced history course.
  • Stanford University, another prestigious and highly selective university, wants to three or more years of history/social studies. The university wants these courses to include a meaningful essay writing requirement so that applicants are prepared for the rigors of university humanities and social science classes.
  • Pomona College, an excellent liberal arts college and member of the Claremont Colleges, wants to see a minimum of two years of social sciences (the term the school uses for social studies), and the college recommends three years. Clearly when a highly selective school "recommends" something, applicants should take that recommendation very seriously.
  • UCLA, one of the country's top public universities, requires two years of study. The university is more specific about this requirement than many other institutions. UCLA wants to see "one year of world history, cultures, and geography; and or one year U.S. history or one half year U.S. history and one half year of civics or American government." 
  • Williams College, another top-ranked liberal arts college, does not have any specific academic requirements for admission, but the school's admissions website notes that they look for the strongest program of study offered at a student's school, and that competitive applicants have typically taken a four-year sequence of courses in social studies.

    The table below gives you a quick glimpse of typical social studies requirements for different types of colleges and universities.

    SchoolSocial Studies Requirement
    Auburn University3 years required
    Carleton College2 years required, 3 or more years recommended
    Centre College2 years recommended
    Georgia Tech3 years required
    Harvard University2-3 years recommended (American, European, one additional advanced)
    MIT2 years required
    NYU3-4 years required
    Pomona College2 years required, 3 years recommended
    Smith College2 years required
    Stanford University3 or more years recommended (should include essay writing)
    UCLA2 years required (1 year world, 1 year US or 1/2 year US+1/2 year civics or government)
    University of Illinois2 years required, 4 years recommended
    University of Michigan3 years required; 2 years for engineering/nursing
    Williams College3 years recommended

    What Social Studies Classes Do the Strongest Applicants Take?

    You can see from the selective colleges above that all schools require two or more social studies classes, and many require three. The reality is that your application will be strongest with four classes, for it's important to remember that colleges look more favorably upon applicants who have done more than meet the minimum requirements.What you take will largely depend on what your school offers. A student who takes a course in U.S. history followed by courses in African American history and America at war shows depth of knowledge and intellectual curiosity, but courses beyond basic American history aren't offered in many school systems. 

    In general, however, you should take the most challenging courses available to you. An IB curriculum will certainly impress the admissions officers, as will AP classes in history and government. If you have the option of taking classes through a local college, those dual-enrollment classes in history, politics, sociology, psychology, government, and other social sciences will also make a good impression and help demonstrate your college readiness.

    College admissions officers are looking for students who have challenged themselves throughout high school, taking on advanced coursework in multiple subjects. Because social studies is an area in which most schools only require two or three years of study, you have an opportunity to present yourself as a well-rounded and dedicated student by taking additional courses.

    This is particularly true if you are applying for a college program in history, civics, or any of the liberal arts.