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Why You Should Follow My 5-4 Plan for Course Selection

It's not even February and most high school students are in the throes of picking their classes for next fall. If you haven't gotten your course selection yet, it's only a matter of time.

For the past few weeks, my Application Nation families have asked for my opinion and suggestions on their children's classes for next year. It doesn't matter if they have a rising senior or a rising freshman (that's me!), parents want to make sure their kids are taking the right classes each year.

I have a very simple approach when it comes to picking classes during high school. It's called the 5-4 Plan. It equates to a student taking all five core academic subjects for all four years of high school, regardless of if they took high school classes in middle school like Spanish 1 or Geometry. Yep, that's right. That's the ideal plan for any student wanting a traditional four-year college degree. Always. No matter what your child is interested in studying.

"But wait. Don't colleges have minimum requirements?," you say. Well, they do. But doing the minimum is, well, minimum.

So here is the 5-4 plan broken down.

The five core subjects are English, Math, Foreign Language (Spanish, French, Mandarin, German, etc.), Science, and Social Science, Social Studies, or History. And here's how it plays out at most high schools for each of the four years:


There is no exception to this. Every single student must take a full year of English (or the equivalent if the school uses block scheduling) for 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. For students interested in highly selective colleges, I would recommend AP Literature and/or AP Language (or the equivalent) for junior/senior year if available.


Just like English, a student really needs to take math all four years of high school. Whether it's Algebra>Geometry>Algebra 2/Trigonometry>Precalculus, or Geometry>Algebra2/Trigonometry>Precalculus>Calculus, a student should have math from 9th through 12th grade.

Foreign Language

Yes, this is true. Stick with one foreign language and try to take it in 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th no matter what you took in middle school. Why? Because most colleges have a foreign language requirement and they don't like when students give up on this core subject.


The most respected science classes are Biology, Chemistry, and Physics for 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. For senior year, I would consider an equally challenging or even more challenging science class if you can handle it (AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP Physics, AP Environmental Science, or the equivalent).

Social Science/Social Studies/History

Classes like World History, U.S. History, Economics, Government, European History, and even AP Psychology or AP Art History count in this category.

But what happens if the 5-4 plan isn't possible?

Many students face scheduling conflicts. If a student wants to take all five cores in a given year but is not able to, their counselor of record is responsible for explaining this in the counselor's secondary school report or letter of recommendation. It is important to remind the counselor of this not only verbally, but in writing as well. If a counselor indicates a scheduling conflict that is out of the student's control, the student is not expected to fulfill all five cores in a given year.

I am a stickler about the 5-4 plan because I used to be on the receiving end of these curriculum choices as an admissions officer and dean of admission. While electives or non-core classes can give a student insight into a particular field, it is important to prioritize those core classes first. If there is room in your schedule, an elective or non-core classes can be an "add-on," but it should never take the place of a core.
Colleges are generally looking for a very traditional curriculum at a minimum. Following the 5-4 plan and doing well in those classes ensures that the most important section of your application is as strong as it can be.