Tips for Selecting Courses in High School

There is a great line in the movie, Little Miss Sunshine, that Steve Carrell’s character, Frank, says to his nephew, Dwayne.  Dwayne, an angsty sixteen year old, tells his uncle that he just wants to go to sleep and wake up when he is older. Frank replies, “So, if you sleep til you're eighteen...Think of the suffering you'd miss! High school's your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that!”


In an era in which we are all focused on “sparking joy” the idea of embracing suffering seems really off-base. I love that line, though.  I know it seems really dramatic, but we learn a lot when we are suffering. I’m not advocating full on grief, but I think being uncomfortable is really good for all of us, and especially for teenagers.


Therefore, that line seemed really appropriate for the topic of this blog post: high school course selection.  While I usually encourage students to take classes based on academic curiosity and their love of learning, sometimes, I just want to tell them that suffering through Physics is worth it. (You can easily replace the word physics in the previous sentence with AP US History, too).  


Tips for high school course selection


Make a 4 year plan

  • Outline your course work across all disciplines from 9th-12th grade

  • Review your school’s graduation requirements and course offerings

  • Take ownership of your curriculum and be intentional about your choices

Choose courses that will offer a challenge and might even make you suffer a bit

  • Avoid an easy senior schedule

  • Don’t choose a class just because you think you’ll earn an A

Pay attention to teacher recommendations

  • Your teachers know your strengths and weaknesses; trust their guidance (for the most part)

  • If you really want to move to the next level in a course (from regular to honors, or honors to AP/IB) talk with your teacher about what you need to do to earn the recommendation

Focus on the five academic subject areas

  • Colleges prefer rigor across disciplines, so make sure you are taking challenging courses in math, science, social science, English, and foreign language

  • Most students only complete the minimum requirements; push yourself to go beyond the minimum in all five academic subjects, even if that means you are taking all five academic subject areas each year in high school

Create balance

  • Your courses don’t all need to be the highest level that your school offers

  • Take into consideration your other commitments such as activities, work, sports, family life

  • Aim to work hard, but not to the point where you are sacrificing too much to keep up with your school work