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american high school curriculum

Guide to the American High School Curriculum

If you're a rising high school student and want to learn more about the high school curriculum in American High Schools, keep reading!

Welcome to the high school world, where you will discover your true passion and interests to pursue in college. But before that, high school was an entirely different environment compared to middle school in terms of academic and after-school life. To dive further into academics, today, we’re introducing three main types of classes in the American High School curriculum. 

The curriculum of American high schools is mainly divided into academic courses, AP courses, and Honors courses.  

1. High School Curriculum: Regular / Non-honor Classes

To lay a solid foundation for university, students need to understand the details of the curriculum at their school and select appropriate advanced courses based on their own needs and wants after completing the introductory courses.  

The American high school curriculum with regular classes can be roughly divided into six categories:  

English Language Arts

English courses help students improve their vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing skills. Specific courses include English literature, American literature, and Creative Writing. It is recommended that you take English courses every year.  


Typical mathematics courses include Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus. It is recommended to take these math courses as early as possible to prepare for your high school’s advanced math and science courses. Most universities require students to take 3 years of high school mathematics, and selective universities require 4 years of high school mathematics.


Universities expect students to take at least 3 years of laboratory science courses in high school. It is recommended that students take Biology, Physics or Chemistry, and Earth or Space Science for two semesters each. Selective universities require students to take 4 years of science courses. Based on the previous introductory science courses, students can add two semesters of chemistry or physics (if not taken before), advanced physics, advanced chemistry, or advanced biology.  

Social Science

Taking cultural and historical courses can help you understand both global and local current affairs and politics. Suggested social studies electives: American History, American Government, World History, or World Geography. Another semester is recommended to take other courses in social sciences, such as Psychology or Economics.

World Language

Universities consider students who take foreign language courses to be willing to improve their knowledge. Many universities require students to take the same foreign language for at least two consecutive years. Selective schools require even more. Spanish, French, and Latin are the most commonly offered language in high school world language courses. Some schools offer Mandarin Chinese and German, Japanese, or Italian. 


Studies have shown that students who take art courses usually score better in school and standard examinations. Many universities require or recommend one or two semesters of elective art courses, including studio art, music, dance, or drama.

2. Honor Classes

In the American High School Curriculum, Honors courses are unique to the United States and are different from standard courses. Compared with regular / non-Honors academic courses, the difference lies in the breadth and depth of topics as well as the learning pace. Honors courses emphasize critical and independent thinking, with the difficulty being around the college level. Honors courses generally have a smaller teacher-student ratio to encourage classroom participation. 

Most high schools in the United States have Honors courses. When a course’s difficulty reaches a certain level, it can be classified as an honor course. Course classifications must be decided in advance of offering the class by the Academic Dean or the Department Head. 

Honor classes are between regular / non-Honors academic and AP classes. Honors classes generally have a weighted Grade Point Average (GPA). This means that the GPA is calculated higher than the general standard. For example, an A grade in an honors course might be given a weighted GPA of 4.3 instead of 4.0 for a regular / non-Honors course. 

In other words, the honors courses in the American high school curriculum refer to the academic difficulty rather than the purpose of “exam-taking,” so not every high school has them. This is the most significant difference between honors classes and AP classes. At the same time, honors courses are generally taught by instructors who select talented students, usually in small classes. The number of honor courses offered is a basis for reflecting the strength of teachers.  

Honors courses have their unique entry requirements at each high school. Generally, the requirements for elective honors courses include the following:  

  1. Freshmen need to consult with their 8th-grade teachers and Guidance Counselor to inquire whether including honors courses in their study plans is appropriate.  
  2. Students who are approved to take honors courses must earn a B or above in prerequisite classes before taking honors courses of the same subject, except for the cases where there are no non-honors courses to choose from.  
  3. Students who are qualified for the honors course level but initially took a non-honors course are generally allowed to transfer to the corresponding honors course in the first semester with their teacher’s recommendation, providing the honors course fits into their class schedule. 
3. AP (Advanced Placement) Class

AP (Advanced Placement) courses are generally equivalent to a first-year university course but are taken in high school. Most US colleges and universities recognize AP courses for credit. Additionally, more than 3000 universities in 22 countries have recognized AP courses. 

AP courses are taught by teachers who have years of teaching experience. AP Courses are taught according to the syllabus developed by the College Board and provided to American high schools. The difficulty is equivalent to introductory courses at American universities; therefore, AP courses will help students earn college credits.

If a student does well in the AP course, they can take the AP exam in the spring at the end of the class. Scoring well on the AP exam allows the AP course to be used for university credit. This is the most direct benefit of taking AP courses.  

AP exams use a scoring system from 1 to 5. Candidates can get scores of 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. Generally, scores of three or more are recognized for credit at universities, but there are several exceptional circumstances. Some academically rigorous and selective universities only accept scores of 4 points or more; some even require an AP exam score of 5 to recognize the AP course for credit, and some universities do not accept AP scores.  

How many AP classes are there and what are they?

AP courses in the American High School curriculum have 7 categories and 38 courses. They are as follows: 

  • AP Capstone: AP Research, AP Seminar
  • Arts: AP Art History, AP Music Theory, AP Studio Art: 2-D Design, AP Studio Art: 3-D Design, AP Studio Art: Drawing
  • English: AP English Language and Composition, AP English Literature and Composition
  • History & Social Science: AP Comparative Government and Politics, AP European History, AP Human Geography, AP Macroeconomics, AP Microeconomics, AP Psychology, AP United States Government and Politics, AP United States History, AP World History
  • Math & Computer Science: AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, AP Computer Science A, AP Computer Science Principles, AP Statistics
  • Sciences: AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP Environmental Science, AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, AP Physics C: Mechanics, AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based, AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based
  • World Languages & Cultures: AP Chinese Language and Culture, AP French Language and Culture, AP German Language and Culture, AP Italian Language and Culture, AP Japanese Language and Culture, AP Latin, AP Spanish Language and Culture, AP Spanish Literature and Culture. 

Discover Aralia, an innovative online education platform offering a comprehensive and engaging online high school curriculum. Aralia Education connects students and teachers around the world. We offer small group and 1-on-1 tutoring sessions in regular / non-Honors academic classes, AP classes, and more. 

Our instructors are inspired teachers and professors who are committed to student success. They are recognized in their field or are currently teaching at top high schools or colleges/universities in the US. A list of instructors is available in the link.

Students who’re interested in receiving tutoring sessions from Aralia in any subject can contact us


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