Guide to Preparing for College

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Building a Path to Academic Success

While there is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, we want to help you make choices that will lead you to a successful college career.

In this section, you will find information about selecting high school courses that best prepare you for liberal arts colleges with high academic demands, such as Harvard, as well as tips for deciding whether you should take time off before attending college. You may also want to review information about what we look for during the admissions process.

A student athlete watches his teammates on the sidelines during the final moments of the 2021 Harvard-Yale game.
Justin Ide

A well-rounded education

A good high school education should do more than prepare you for the next level of education or for later employment—it should prepare you to take advantage of future learning opportunities of all kinds. You should gain particular skills and information, as well as a broad perspective on the world and its possibilities.

By taking the most academically demanding courses you can find, you can improve both your chance of admission to a selective college and your performance during the first years of college.

In developing the advice in this section, we have relied on empirical evidence, specifically, the secondary school preparation of our own students who have succeeded at Harvard. Because the content of courses may vary from high school to high school, we have tried to identify important knowledge, skills, or habits of thought, rather than naming specific courses.

Of course, we will take your individual situation into account. Just as each student has different talents and interests that need to be developed, schools vary considerably in their particular strengths. You may encounter unique circumstances, such as resource limitations or the opportunity to learn from a great teacher.

Smith Campus Center

Choosing high school courses

We hope you will read our thoughts about choosing high school courses that will provide a strong base for a liberal arts education. But in summary, we recommend:

  • 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

Various important secondary school subjects, such as art and music, are not specifically mentioned in our recommendations. The omission of these subjects should not be interpreted as a value judgment. We are concerned only with secondary school subjects for which we have data that suggest they are specific prerequisites for college work.

**Applicants to Harvard should excel in a challenging high school math sequence corresponding to their educational interests and aspirations. Rigorous and relevant data science, computer science, statistics, mathematical modeling, calculus, and other advanced math classes are given equal consideration in the application process.
 
Specifically, calculus is neither a requirement nor a preference for admission to Harvard. We understand that many students have no intention to pursue college coursework that requires a knowledge of calculus, and that other students are unsure of their future college studies. We also understand that not all students have the same opportunities to take certain math classes in high school, including calculus. Thus, we encourage applicants to pursue the pathways through math that are available to them and aligned with their interests and goals. 
 
Students intending to study engineering, computer science, physics, or other fields for which a knowledge of calculus is required may benefit from taking calculus in high school. However, applicants who have not taken calculus in high school can still pursue such fields of study here by starting with one of Harvard’s introductory calculus classes that has no high school calculus prerequisite. 
 
It is our hope that high schools offer a selection of math courses that focuses on conceptual understanding, promotes higher-order thinking, and encourages students to use mathematical reasoning to critically examine the world. We recognize that the traditional pathway to calculus is not the only way, or even the best way, to achieve this goal. Therefore, we encourage high schools, counselors, teachers, and students to explore other pathways through mathematics that will best support student learning, growth, and success.

Students walking through the gated entrance to Harvard Yard.

What Harvard Looks For

While we believe that the conclusions summarized on this page will meet the expectations of many other selective colleges, let us say a word about Harvard, since it was here that the data underlying our conclusions were gathered.

This overview is not intended to provide a formula that will ensure admission to Harvard. Our admissions policies are based on many criteria. Some are academic; others are not.

Our Admissions Office chooses carefully from a broad range of applicants who seem to us to offer the most promise for future contributions to society. Not all of the students who are best prepared for college will be among those with the most future promise, nor are all of the most promising well prepared academically.

While the heart of the matter will always lie in academic promise, we prize candidates with special talents and with outstanding personal qualities; we are interested in students who excel in one or more extracurricular activities; and we seek a distinctive and diverse national and international student body.

Most of all we look for students who make the most of their opportunities and the resources available to them, and who are likely to continue to do so throughout their lives.

We believe that you should prepare for college by mastering certain subjects and skills. You can demonstrate your proficiency in these subjects by taking Advanced Placement tests and International Baccalaureate tests and submitting the scores, if you wish.

Students cheering with Harvard gear

Online Guides and Resources

There are many college application and financial aid resources available to high school students online. We encourage you to review our application tips, try our Net Price Calculator, and utilize whichever additional resources you find most useful. Here are a few organizations and resources you may wish to review: