High School Classes Ivy League Schools Require

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a group of students smiling at the camera

Which High School Classes Do Ivy League Schools Require?

Preparing to attend an Ivy League school begins as soon as students start selecting their courses at the beginning of their high school career. From 9th to 12th grades, every student has the opportunity to pick which classes they will take. Students have a remarkable level of freedom to pick and choose what selection of courses they will choose. Leatn more about ‘What high school classes should I take to get into the Ivies?’.

The subjects, number of courses, and level of rigor of high school courses should be determined by the desired Ivy League school and the major students want to pursue.

Students participating in the program through available online courses.

A student interested in science courses should focus on science and other STEM classes. A student pursuing the arts should focus on specific arts courses to prepare them. Regardless of subject, there are some core courses high school students should plan to take to be prepared for Ivy League admission.

Course Selections

To be considered a strong candidate, students should pick their courses strategically. Most high schools offer students an academic plan which they can follow that plans out the courses they will take in each subject each year. In addition to taking the classes required by the Ivy League schools, students will also have to take courses required by their high school.

The high school four year plan will typically include courses in English, mathematics, social science, science, foreign language, and electives. These are considered the core courses that students need to take to be prepared for an Ivy League education. Depending on their desired major, students will need to take two to four years of each of these courses.

Course Rigor

In addition to planning for each year, students need to think about the level of rigor of their courses. More rigorous courses will do more toward preparing a student for attendance in the Ivies. This means picking challenging classes that will push students to achieve at the college level while they are still in high school.

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This includes Honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB). These courses signal to the Ivy League schools that the student will be able to perform at a college level from the time of their admission.

The type and number of advanced high school courses a student chooses will depend on their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the colleges and majors they are seeking to join.


Students should plan to take an English course all four years of their high school career. These courses will give students experience with writing essays, reading comprehension in books and other texts, giving presentations, and collaborating with peers. English courses will prepare students to meet the writing and reading expectations of what Ivy League colleges look for in high school students.


Depending on their major, students will need to take three to four years of mathematics. These math classes should be increasingly more difficult each year and include Geometry, Algebra 1 and 2, Trigonometry, and Calculus. The math classes students will take to get into Ivy League will also depend on their desired major.

Social Sciences

In addition, students should plan to take four years of social sciences. Social sciences courses can include Geography, World History, U.S. Government, and U.S. History, which may be split into two courses before and after the American Civil War. Taking four years of social science high school classes will further demonstrate a students’ commitment to meeting Ivy League schools’ requirements.


Students should plan to take three to four years of science classes. These science classes may also include laboratory science as well. These science courses may be selected from Earth Science, Space Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Depending on a student’s interests, they may want to take multiple levels of a particular science, such as Biology 1 and 2, or Chemistry 1 and 2.

Foreign Language

Most Ivy Leagues require students to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language. Students should plan to take a minimum of two and a maximum of four years of a foreign language beyond their native language. Foreign languages that Ivy Leagues prefer to see include Spanish, French, and Chinese. Other foreign language options include Latin, German, Italian, or Russian. The foreign language students can take will depend largely on the available languages at their school.


Beyond the core classes, students should also plan to take two to three electives every year. Electives are where students can showcase their personal interests. Students should plan to stick with the electives they choose and avoid switching them up too much.

Electives should be chosen based on the passions a student has and the major a student will likely pursue, as they can also be an avenue for additional extracurricular activities.

a high school class where the students are raising their hands

For example, a student may choose Choir or Chorale, and then compete in a competition choir team. Students may take a different level of dance each year, and then compete with a performance team.

The same goes for sports, like basketball, football, soccer, or cheerleading. These elective classes can help students identify their future majors and demonstrate their prowess as competitors winning awards and titles.

Electives are also another opportunity to meet the expectations of what Ivy League colleges look for in high school students.

Students planning to pursue a business degree may choose to take classes related to business, such as Economics, Entrepreneurship, or Computer Science. Students interested in admission to a music program may choose to take marching band or music theory classes.

The elective classes taken in high school are a great way to meet additional Ivy League admission requirements and bolster an application. A student can set themselves apart from other students with the elective courses they take to get into an Ivy League.

At the same time, students should be careful that they are not just selecting courses that will make them look good, but which they have an actual interest in. If a student is interested in the arts, they should focus on those arts classes in which they can excel. If a student is interested in STEM, they should choose courses that align with that interest.

Now, with a sense of each of the core subjects students should take, let’s look at how students might strategize scheduling their courses each year of high school to be prepared for an Ivy League education.

Freshman Year

In the first year of high school, students should aim to select one of each of the core courses. They should select a level of rigor that is challenging enough to set a strong foundation, but not too rigorous that they struggle.

Students should take the level that allows them to set a strong base for later success. This may mean taking Pre-AP classes in subjects where they are stronger and regular levels in courses where they may need to gain more skills.

four female students studying inside a room

Freshman year is also a great opportunity to explore initial interests and determine which courses will lead to the most compelling and unique academic record.

Sophomore Year

In the sophomore year of high school, students should be prepared to take more advanced courses in subjects where they have excelled. If science and math are a clear and obvious strong point, students should take AP Biology and AP Algebra. If the humanities are a place of strength, students should choose to take AP English Literature and AP U.S. History.

With one year already completed, students will have a better sense of areas where they are doing well.

If the student is excelling all around, they should consider taking all advanced courses in Honors, AP, or IB, whichever route their school offers. Whatever advanced courses they choose, students should keep it consistent throughout the remaining years.

a female student writing on her notes

Additionally, freshman and sophomore year are a great opportunity to clear prerequisites for courses they plan to take in their junior and senior years.

Schools may require students to take U.S Government before they can take U.S. History or Pre-AP English before they can take AP English. Ivy League colleges will look for increasing challenge and rigor with each year of high school courses that students take.

Junior Year

The third year of high school may be the most rigorous students will take. They should select courses that are the most challenging of their high school careers, so as to attract the attention of the Ivy Leagues.

Students should aim to take all advanced classes, if possible. This will show potential Ivies that the student is prepared for and capable of completing college-level courses.

Students should also be mindful of complementary courses that must be taken together, like Calculus and Physics or World History and World Literature. At the same time, students should be mindful of heavy course loads, as there should be enough challenge to impress the Ivies, but not too much that students flounder and flail.

Senior Year

Senior year will be a busy time with applying for admissions into Ivy Leagues, but students should still plan to take a sufficient course load to continue improving their GPA and demonstrating their academic abilities. Ivy League admissions will require a final transcript, and so students should continue to work as strategically as they have the last three years.

If planning to pursue a STEM or language major, students should plan to take a fourth year of science, mathematics, and foreign language.

If pursuing an arts major, these STEM and language courses may be opted out of for additional electives that match their previous interests or free periods to focus on applying for admissions, going on campus visits, and seeking scholarships.

Senior year is a student’s last chance to take high school classes that will aid them in getting into an Ivy League.

This should not be considered a year to slack off or take on less than they have in previous years. Ivy League colleges want to admit students who will be successful, and senior year is an important time to continue demonstrating academic credibility.

College Credits

Some schools offer dual enrollment where students can earn college credit for courses taken while still in high school. Students should take advantage of any courses where they are sure of their success.

These credits can be transferred to their university and reduce the number of lower level classes they have to take in the first few years of attendance. Taking high school courses for college credit will be a sure sign of a student’s preparedness for an Ivy League education.

AP Exams

In the same way, AP exams offer college credit by examination. Students can take an AP exam for every AP course they take. These exams are usually taken in junior and senior year, so students can use these exams to strengthen their applications. AP exams are one benefit over taking IB or Honors classes, as they can be directly transferred to college credit.

Final Transcripts

As stated previously, most Ivy Leagues will ask for a final record of students’ academic performance after they have been admitted.

Ivy league admissions offices will see a students’ final grades, so even the work done in their senior years’ courses in the final year will be included in the admissions application. Students should be mindful of this final transcript and be sure they are performing consistently up until their high school graduation.

What Ivy League Admissions Are Looking For

Harvard is consistently ranked as a top Ivy League school in the nation, and they require the following high school courses for students applying to admission:

  • The study of English for four years: close and extensive reading of the classics of the world’s literature
  • Four years of a single foreign language
  • The study of history for at least two years, and preferably three years: American history, European history, and one additional advanced history course
  • The study of mathematics for four years
  • The study of science for four years: physics, chemistry, and biology, and preferably one of these at an advanced level
  • Frequent practice in the writing of expository prose

As another example, Yale admissions invites students to ask themselves these questions as they are planning their course load each year:

  • Am I taking a well-balanced academic program that will provide me with a good foundation for college?
  • Am I prepared to take college-level math, writing, and science courses?
  • Do I feel challenged by the courses that I am taking?
  • Are my courses among the more rigorous ones available to me at my school?
  • Am I seeking a challenge or avoiding it?
  • Overall, is my four-year high school program among the most challenging programs available at my school?

On the other hand, the college students applying to the Ivy League university will also determine the types of courses that demonstrate the greatest potential for success.

At UPenn, they have four different colleges to which students may apply for admissions. Each school looks for evidence of students pursuing different opportunities and achievements.

For example, at the College of Arts and Sciences, they look for students who have the following attributes:

  • a curiosity in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences
  • an ability to apply classroom knowledge to the real world
  • a strong preparation in a balanced and advanced college preparatory curriculum

At Penn Engineering, they seek students who have the following interests:

  • an ability to innovate, design, and practically apply scientific discoveries
  • expressed reasons for pursuing an engineering education
  • a strong preparation in physics and mathematics, particularly calculus

At the School of Nursing, their admissions looks for students who have demonstrated:

  • a commitment to patient care
  • a desire to explore issues in healthcare
  • a strong preparation in the sciences, particularly in chemistry

At The Wharton School, they look for a completely different set of course accomplishments:

  • an interest in business to fuel positive change to advance the world’s economic and social well-being
  • demonstrated leadership
  • a strong preparation in mathematics, particularly calculus

Students should research the college within their desired Ivy League to ensure that the course program they select for their high school years meets the desired expectations. The high school courses a student chooses will depend not only on the requirements from Ivy League admissions, but on their personal passions and interests, their skills and strengths, and their future vision.

Need help planning high school courses required by the Ivies?

When it comes to being admitted into an Ivy League school, the high school courses students take are crucial. Students want to demonstrate that they are prepared to take on the rigor and challenge of an Ivy League education. Contacting AdmissionSight is an important first step in preparing for the Ivy League admissions process.

AdmissionSight can begin preparing students to meet the Ivy League requirements with counseling on course selections from freshman to senior year. If you want to learn more about how we can help, contact AdmissionSight today to set up a free consultation.



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