It’s back-to-school season, and that means it’s time for students to choose their elective courses and decide what extracurricular activities they’re going to participate in this year. But how do you make the most of the opportunity? We checked in with Erica, a guidance counselor at K12’s California Virtual Academies, and Karen, an academic administrator at K12’s Cyber Academy of South Carolina, for their expert advice. They encourage you to keep the following tips in mind: 

Know the Requirements

Most high schools, and some middle schools, require students to take elective classes in addition to their required curriculum courses: math, science, language arts, and history. Options may include subjects such as art, music, journalism, computer programming, and business. Schools vary on their graduation requirements though and may require that a student complete a certain number of elective credits that fall under fine art or world language categories. This does limit your options to some extent, but by knowing what is required, you’ll know what to look for. “If you do not know where to find a list, be sure to ask your counselor for help,” Erica advises. “Read through the options as well as the course descriptions. That way the student will have a clear understanding of what the course entails.” 

Pursue Your Passions

Taking a class they’ll like will help students have fun and reduce stress. The electives they choose can also reveal areas of interest they might not have been aware of. Wanting to take several electives around a certain subject, for example, can show that your student likely has skills in that area.

Try Something New

“Electives provide opportunities outside of the required curriculum to ‘try on’ a topic or subject area,” Karen says. Taking a class that will introduce a student to a completely new subject or that is more advanced than your usual classes is a great way to challenge yourself and stay motivated throughout high school. You may even discover a new talent or interest. 

Maintain Balance

Elective choices should both supplement and complement a student’s core schedule. Some schools offer elective courses—such as journalism or band—that complement extracurricular activities. By choosing those options, after-school time commitment is reduced, giving more time to study for other classes.

Strengthen Your College Application

“College admission officers want to see that a student is well-rounded and has diverse interests, within reason,” Erica says. “Electives allow students to explore their interests and can play a role in helping a student choose a major when applying to a college or university.” She adds, “Colleges want to see students take academic electives that will challenge them. This could be a course like AP® psychology or an additional year of a world language or lab science.” 

Students should also take courses that colleges recommend. To ensure the right elective choices:

  • Talk to counselors and teachers to help determine which electives will meet the requirements of the colleges or types of programs a student is considering.
  • Use College Search to see what specific colleges require.
  • Check out The College Board’s High School Classes Colleges Look For to get an idea of the courses college admission officers want to see on a transcript.

The same goes for extracurricular activities. “Time outside of school is often limited and, therefore, a precious commodity,” Karen says. Students should consider the same criteria as electives when deciding how to spend their free time.

Explore your interests and curiosity,” Karen says. “Extracurricular activities allow students the opportunity to have control over their time and more importantly to explore their passions.”

Self-inventories are an effective first step in determining what options are available and what might be a good fit. Learning to play a sport or musical instrument takes practice, and students should be prepared to invest time, energy, and resources in any decision they make. Karen says, “Seeing something through is more than a test in perseverance, it is an important life skill. Students should consult with a myriad of people before making a final decision, such as those adults and peers involved in the activity with them as well as friends and family members who know them best.”

Together, an informed decision can be made if the activity is a good fit for the student.

Erica recommends students, “check into the local Park and Recreation, YMCA, and Boys and Girls Club for activities.” She adds that school-based clubs and volunteering are great additions to any student’s college application.

What elective courses and extracurricular activities will your student be participating in this year? Let us know in the comments below.

This article originally published in 2014 and has been updated and republished.

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