Gearing Up for High School: Helping Your Student Choose Electives

By Wendy Wisner of Your Teen Mag

Middle School

My son is only finishing sixth grade, but high school is definitely on my radar. Before I know it, he’ll be in eighth grade and selecting his coursework for high school. His academic classes will be mostly predetermined, but I already find myself wondering how much leeway I should give him when it comes to choosing electives.

When I was in high school, I was encouraged to “follow my passion,” but I wonder if that’s still the best advice. If my son wanted to skip the foreign language elective, for example, and take drama instead, would nudging him toward the more academically-oriented course make more sense? Or should kids decide these things on their own?

Aim for Balance

When it comes to deciding how much freedom to give your child, there is no one right answer, says Emily Levitt, Vice President of Education at Sylvan Learning. Ideally, parent and child would come to the decision together.

“Luckily,” says Levitt, “most high school schedules have room for enough electives where the students can take courses that look good for a college transcript and follow their passion.”

Levitt recommends selecting a mix of elective types. She suggests, “Try to pick some electives that are not only interesting but present a little bit of a challenge; not necessarily AP-level rigorous, but not a bunch of blow-off classes just to check the box.” 



Early High School is the Time to Explore

The good news, says Levitt, is that not every decision kids make in ninth grade will determine their future, so allow some time to experiment. As they go further in the high school years, they can fine-tune their focus.

This was exactly the attitude Christine Burke took when she helped guide her son Joe in selecting his high school electives in eighth grade.

“I have always viewed electives as an opportunity for students to ‘let their hair down’ when it comes to course load,” says Burke. “AP and honors classes and the demands of sports and other activities have left our high school students over-stressed. Electives should allow students to explore their creative side.”

Burke’s philosophy paid off. Joe, now a thriving high school sophomore, is taking debate and metal shop. “He loves the opportunity to work with his hands on a project during the day. It’s a nice break from AP History,” says Burke.

What Are Colleges Looking For?

Many parental concerns about electives center on what will look best for college. Levitt advises parents not to worry much, and that “follow your passion,” might be the best advice here.

“Colleges are looking for someone who really does follow their interests when it comes to extracurricular and electives,” says Levitt. “Do you have a passion for something? Do you have a focus and goal?”

Levitt recommends contacting any colleges of interest to see what coursework they require (for example, how many years of a foreign language are needed). GPA also matters for college, so loading up on too many challenging electives may not be the wisest choice for some kids.

Again, it’s all about balance: making smart choices, exploring interests, and having fun.


Wendy Wisner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Family Circle, and Parenting, and is a frequent contributor to Your Teen Magazine at