Scheduling Graduation Requirements: 4 Year Plan

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As you’re entering high school, one of the most important things you can do is strategize when to take each of the courses that are required in your high school’s degree plan. Degree plans can seem overwhelming at first, but when you break down each part, they’re easy enough to understand and fulfill. This article discusses a few tips for organizing an optimal schedule. 

Understanding Your High School’s Degree Plan

  • The first thing you need to do is acquire your high school’s course catalog. This can usually be found through your school district’s website, or through a simple Google search similar to the following format: “[school district] [high school name] high school course catalog [year]”.  For this post, we’ll take a look at Dulaney High School in the Baltimore County Public School District (BCPS) as an example. 
  • In your high school’s course catalog, usually within the first few pages, you’ll see the school’s overall graduation plan. This will usually be in the form of a table separated by subjects and course credits.


  • Credits refer to a type of point system used by high schools (and colleges) to account for the number and type of courses a student has taken. Usually, 1 credit accounts for 2 semesters of a course; for example, 4 credits of English refer to 4 years of English classes taken throughout high school.
  • Generally, high schools will require students to take an English, math, science, and social studies course for 3 or 4 years of schooling, and also require classes in physical education, health, art, and sometimes technology. Additionally, a number of electives may also be required. 
  • Some high schools also offer completer sequences. These programs go by various names across the nation, but they’re essentially classes that introduce you to a specific career path. For instance, the career paths may be broken down by STEM, pre-health, business, and arts. Students would be able to choose an academy and take a sequence of additional courses to fulfill that sequence. For instance, if a student chose the STEM career path, they might take “Principles of Engineering” freshman year, “Introduction to Computer Science” sophomore year, and so on. These can be especially helpful for introducing students to future college and career-based classes early on, allowing them to explore their interests.
  • Further along in most course catalogs, you will see tables of classes that fulfill a certain requirement, flowcharts for different subjects, and eventually a full description of every class offered by the district and/or high school.
  • This is an example of a flowchart for the possible math sequences in BCPS

  • Finally, many high schools also offer multiple plans with different labels such as “Regular”, “Distinguished”, and “Honors”. These correlate to the rigor of a high school course load, and each plan will have different requirements to fulfill. For example, the regular plan may require only 2 electives, but an Honors plan may require 4. 
  • But how do you take all these requirements and figure out what class to take when? The next section provides a strategy that might help. 

Creating a Four-Year Degree Plan

Although you don’t have to do this immediately, creating some sort of visual organizer for all the classes is the easiest way to plan for classes. You can do this through an Excel spreadsheet, flowchart, or other online tools.  

The following is an example of a spreadsheet one of our writers created and used through high school:


This may look overwhelming at first, but don’t worry! Here’s how to break it down:  

  • The first image is a listing of the different types of courses that had to be included in this student’s degree plan, such as English, math, foreign language, and electives.  
    • Under each subject, you can list all the different courses that you will qualify to take based on pre-requisites, interest, and necessity.
    • Some courses, like English, will not have a lot of flexibility, but science courses may offer a wide variety of classes to choose from 
  • The second image is a complete table that organizes the degree requirements. In the very left-hand column, the complete requirements and total credits are listed, and the next four columns are separated by grade level.  
    • Under each grade level, you can insert a particular class into the row heading that matches the subject, and also add the credits the class offers 
    • You can add a sum to subtotal the credits for each year  
    • The last column is for the complete totals – this will help you match whether you will have met the required credits by the end of the four years (this student ended up taking a few more classes than required by the plan)
  • You can also add special notes or reminders for yourself at the bottom of the table – this might be helpful to have if you take your degree plan to your counselor when registering for classes
  • You can have multiple sheets in your spreadsheet file for different levels of degree plans  
  • The reason this particular method may be helpful is because it allows you to easily add or remove classes to see how credits might change, and gives you an idea of which classes you should take now in order to meet pre-requisites. It’s also helpful when discussing classes with counselors, since both parties can easily visualize the degree plan. 

Tips for Choosing When to Take Which Classes

  • Try to account for and finish pre-requisites in your freshman and sophomore years so that you can take Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or other upper-level courses in your junior and senior years.
  • Some students prefer to finish extra requirements such as health and art early on during high schools, while others may use these classes to help buffer a heavy course load junior or senior year.
  • Some high schools offer courses that cover multiple requirements in one class
    • For example, an “Introduction to Dance” class may cover your physical education and fine arts credits at the same time – think of it as killing two birds with one stone
  • Don’t forget to factor in requirements for electives! 
    • In some high schools, classes in a subject area that are taken after meeting the subject’s credit requirements can be used to count toward electives
    • For example, if you finish the required 4 science credits your high school requires, but wish to take an additional AP science course, that AP course may actually count as an elective 
  • Try to think about what your potential career path may be, and see if you can take classes that cater to those choices
  • Avoid stacking on a lot of AP, IB, or Honors classes all at once and be careful about which subjects you take advanced classes in (although your degree plan should get more rigorous as you advance through high school)
  • Account for which classes may help your Grade Point Average or class rank at your specific high school (talk to teachers or older students for advice)
  • Research and plan for classes that may be taken through dual credit programs
  • Remember to factor in time for extracurriculars!

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