How to Choose High School Electives

High school is a time when teens begin to find real independence from their parents, look toward the future and learn more about who they are as individuals and what they’re passionate about.

Education experts say high school electives — classes students choose that allow them to explore beyond the core curriculum — are one way to help high schoolers figure out what matters to them.

Electives can help ease a student’s schedule with a course they may enjoy, says Regine Muradian, a psychologist and coach who works with students on their learning and study skills. By offering students the time to focus on new and emerging passions and talents, they can also help point to future careers.

“Electives can also increase a student’s desire to learn,” Muradian says.

And having the opportunity to develop personal passions makes for a more meaningful and impactful education, says Cindy Chanin, founder of Rainbow EDU Consulting.

[READ: How to Find a Tutor for Your Child.]

The Value of High School Electives

The number of electives students take varies by district and grade level, as do the courses offered. But the classes students choose can help communicate their unique academic journey, says Jenn Curtis, founder of FutureWise Consulting and co-author of “The Parent Compass.”

“Electives relate and build upon an interest and underscore who the student is and what they are about,” she says.

In the early high school years, “students don’t always know what they want to do, which is natural, but this is a time for exploration,” Curtis says. “In the later years, 11th and 12th grades, students start to home in on their interests, and electives can play a significant role in completing the picture of a student’s academic story.”

In some cases, electives can bolster a student’s college application. Some students may use their elective slots to dive deeper into subjects beyond graduation requirements. As students begin thinking about college, they can fill those elective slots with honors and Advanced Placement classes in their particular field of interest. For example, students interested in going into the medical profession might take advanced biology or anatomy.

But honors or AP courses aren’t the only electives that can build on a student’s core skills. Classes in subjects like debate, photography, robotics, world languages, theater, speech, leadership or music can all enhance teens’ high school education.

[Read: What Every High School Senior Must Know About Student Loans for College]

Parents’ Role in Selecting Electives

Experts say parents should step back when it comes to selecting electives, and let their teen decide. “Electives provide students an invaluable opportunity to find their ‘why’ as it relates to their education,” says Chanin, helping them develop the ability to build “an education that’s happening for them instead of to them.” Students need the freedom to figure out their interests and dive in.

Still, there are some ways parents can help their high schooler in the elective process:

Help figure out requirements. Rules around electives can vary by school and from year to year, so parents and high school counselors can step in to help students understand what’s required.

Gather information together. Explore the course catalog with your teen, and find out what excites them or piques their interest. Have an open conversion and encourage your child to ask other students about their elective experiences.

Let your student lead the process. This is imperative, experts say. Students need to use electives to find out what they like and what they don’t like. Electives allow for the exploration of intrinsic passions.

Sample High School Electives

Electives can cover courses in language arts, the visual and performing arts, music, foreign languages, STEM and more. Options will vary widely by school and district, but here are a few examples of the kinds of unique courses some top high schools are offering:

Whitney High School in Cerritos, California, offers ceramics, film and television production, digital art and communication design, symphonic band, and stage design.

Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, New York, has classes in broadcast media arts (TV-radio-stage), Japanese, pre-engineering-robotics, concert band and a workshop in artistic exploration.

— The International School of Beaverton, in Oregon, offers psychology, self-taught literature, theory of knowledge, sculpture and STEM physics.

Sumner Academy of Arts and Science in Kansas City, Kansas, offers courses in competitive speech and debate, personal/professional skills, Shakespeare, composition and research, and human rights studies.

Signature School in Evansville, Indiana, offers ethnic studies, German, microeconomics and macroeconomics and a music theory seminar.

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