Which High School Courses Should a Science Major Take?

I asked Cornell University’s Dean of Admissions what courses should a potential science or engineering major take in high school to get into a school such as Cornell. He told me flat out that, to be considered for a physical science major in general, and to be admitted to the engineering school in particular, you need to have performed well in these courses or their equivalent, provided that your school offers them:

Calculus AP (preferably BC)
Chemistry AP
Physics AP*

In fact, he told me that the admissions committee will ask you why you didn’t take one of these classes if they were available to you. You don’t want to have to answer that question. When it comes to the engineering and physical science majors, you need to demonstrate mathematics proficiency, first and foremost, and you need to demonstrate it in the context of the most difficult courses high school offers.

Other courses to consider are:

Biology AP
Computer Science AP
Statistics AP

But What if I’m Planning to be a Biology Major?

I still believe strongly in taking the above courses before Biology, even if you intend to major in the latter. Why is that? Both Chemistry and Physics AP courses are traditionally more challenging courses, and required prerequisites for Biology majors anyway. Taking the more difficult courses in high school with smaller classes and teachers more trained in pedgagogy will most likely give you leg up during that first challenging year in college.

*There are actually three AP Physics course offered by the College Board. They are:

AP Physics 1 covers essential physics topics such as Newtonian mechanics, work, energy and power, waves and simple circuits, though it will not count toward your college physics requirements because it is Algebra-based. For physics majors and related science-majors college-level physics is calculus based. This would be a great option for your first-year physics course before you take Calculus.

AP Physics 2 is similarly algebra-based, and covers the topics fluid statics and dynamics, thermodynamics, electrostatics, electrical circuits with capacitors, magnetic fields; electromagnetism, optics and quantum, atomic, and nuclear physics. Again, while Physics 1 is a great first course to take, and Physics 2 a potential second course, those planning on majoring in science at the college level should take calculus-based AP Physics C.

AP Physics C is broken into two sections, Mechanics and Electricity & Magnetism. Though you may take just one of these two — in which case, Physics C: Mechanics is the preferred course — you are encouraged to take both of them, Mechanics first semester and Electricity & Magnetism second. You will be able to sit for both AP Physics C exams in succession during a 180 minute testing period.

From the College Board website:

“The Physics C: Mechanics course is equivalent to a one-semester, calculus-based, college-level physics course. It is especially appropriate for students planning to specialize or major in physical science or engineering. The course explores topics such as kinematics; Newton's laws of motion; work, energy and power; systems of particles and linear momentum; circular motion and rotation; and oscillations and gravitation. Introductory differential and integral calculus is used throughout the course.”

College Board says about its Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism course:

“The Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism course is a one-semester, calculus-based, college-level physics course, especially appropriate for students planning to specialize or major in physical science or engineering. The course explores topics such as electrostatics; conductors, capacitors, and dielectrics; electric circuits; magnetic fields; and electromagnetism. Introductory differential and integral calculus is used throughout the course.”

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