Many high school and college students find psychology – the social science that deals with human thought and behavior – to be an intriguing field of study. In fact, psychology is consistently one of the most popular college majors among undergraduates, even though a bachelor’s degree alone doesn’t qualify you to become a psychologist. More than 103,000 bachelor’s degrees in general psychology were conferred upon students during the 2017 through 2018 school year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
If you’re one of the many students interested in majoring in psychology when you get to college, you might wonder what you should be doing in high school to set yourself up for success. Taking the right classes, gaining volunteer experience and planning for your future after completing your bachelor’s degree are all good steps to take before you even enroll in college.
Classes to Take in High School for Psychology Majors
As a psychology major, you’re going to need a strong foundation of college preparatory-level classes upon which to build the new knowledge you gain in college. In addition to a general college prep curriculum, there are certain high school subjects you may want to focus on as an aspiring psychology major, starting with psychology.
Can You Take Psychology in High School?
Of course, one of the best high school courses for psychology majors is, well, psychology. Psychology is the scientific study of the mind, thinking and behavior.
A high school class in psychology typically serves as an introduction to the field of psychology. Students in high school psychology classes may learn the history of psychology as well as the foundational concepts and theories of psychology. Often, students study an overview of the different approaches used in psychology, such as behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology, humanistic psychology, psychodynamic psychology and biological psychology.
Most high school psychology courses are general in nature. At the college level – once they complete their foundational introduction to psychology courses – students can expect to take more focused courses in psychology, such as social psychology, developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, health psychology, cognitive psychology and industrial and organizational psychology. As an example, an advanced placement (AP) psychology course offered to high school students is typically considered equivalent to an introductory general psychology course at the college level.
What Grade Do You Take Psychology in High School?
At lower grade levels, students typically don’t take classes in the subject of psychology specifically. Certain topics pertaining to psychology may make appearances in classes in other subjects, such as social studies, science, math and both the literature and writing components of English.
However, it’s not until high school that students typically have a chance to learn about psychology specifically. Even then, high school psychology courses are usually offered as electives, not required classes.
Most high schools offer just one or two psychology courses, at most. High school seniors are the ones most likely to enroll in these classes, in part because they spend their earlier years in school completing required classes. However, juniors and potentially even high school students in lower grade levels may have the option to take a psychology course.
Some high school psychology classes are AP classes, which means that they consist of college-level material and work. Students who take AP courses and pass the challenging AP exam can earn college credit and potentially reduce the number of classes they have to take in college. Because this coursework and the AP exam are so difficult, AP psychology courses are usually intended for upper-level high school students.
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Other High School Requirements for Psychology Degree Programs
Which high school classes should an aspiring psychology major take? You might be surprised to hear that coursework in science, mathematics and statistics is particularly valuable to future psychology students. By choosing the right classes, particularly those in the life and natural sciences, mathematics and the social sciences during high school, you are building yourself a foundation that will be valuable once you begin college.
High School Science Courses for Psychology Majors
Psychology principles and research are based on the scientific method, so having a background in studying science is helpful for understanding how to do research and experiments. Any high school course that helps you develop a better grasp of the scientific method of inquiry is valuable for prospective psychology students. Chemistry, the study of the properties, composition and reactions of matter, is one such course to take. Another branch of science that emphasizes the study of matter is physics, which is concerned with the behavior, motion, force and energy of matter. Although neither of these scientific disciplines pertains directly to the study of psychology the way that they might to fields like medical research or engineering, having knowledge of both disciplines can help you cultivate stronger skills in scientific thinking.
The branch of science that is most closely related to the study of psychology is biology, the study of living organisms and systems. How the human brain works is vitally important to the study of thought and behavior. The individual parts that make up the brain, as well as the neurotransmitters, hormones and human nervous system, are part of the study of human biology.
There is an entire subfield of psychology dedicated to biological psychology, in which coursework might consist of classes such as biological psychology, human neuropsychology and sensation and perception. Some of the topics that fit under the umbrella of biological psychology include memory, sleeping and dreaming, sensory processing and perception, psychological disorders, the effects of stress on health, how drugs (prescription, over-the-counter and recreational) influence the brain and the science behind human emotions.
High School Statistics and Math Classes for Psychology
Since psychology is based on scientific inquiry and empirical evidence, it’s important to be able to quantify and analyze data that comes from psychological research so that it can be assessed and put into practice. To help them use their knowledge of math and statistics to interpret and evaluate the results of research in psychology, prospective psych majors should start studying statistics, calculus and other mathematics courses during high school.
While any college-prep curriculum in high school is likely to include at least some math classes, students may not automatically be pushed toward the study of statistics – but it’s still a valuable class to take. The field of statistics encompasses the applications of quantitative analytical techniques to real-world data. Studying statistics helps you develop the skills to make meaning out of the data psychologists gather from the experiments they conduct. For example, when comparing the efficacy of a new form of psychotherapy against existing methods, researchers must use the techniques of statistical analysis to determine if there is a statistically significant difference in outcomes.
High School Social Studies Courses for Psychology
Despite its foundation in the scientific method, psychology is a social science, and it has a lot in common with other social science disciplines. Some of the social science classes that may be available to you as a high school student include sociology, anthropology, child development and economics.
These courses approach scientific inquiry of social behaviors and interactions from different perspectives. Sociology primarily focuses on social groups, norms and institutions. Anthropology emphasizes the study of cultures, while child development has more to do with physical and cognitive development over the early parts of the human lifespan. Economics is a highly quantitative field, but its goal is to understand behaviors and decision-making as they pertain to scarcity and the production, use and distribution of wealth and other resources. However, having a foundation in each of these subjects can help you develop a breadth of knowledge in the social sciences that you can apply to your college studies in psychology. For example, fully understanding how people relate to and make decisions about money requires knowledge of both psychology and economics.
Taking Advanced Placement Classes for a Future Program of Study in Psychology
Should an aspiring psychology major take advanced placement (AP) classes in high school? Although taking AP courses isn’t necessarily required to get into a college degree program in psychology, many students choose to do so. The benefits of taking AP classes include learning in an environment similar to that of a real college course and potentially having the chance to earn college credit even before graduating high school.
Many high schools offer advanced placement (AP) courses in psychology, which happens to be one of the most popular AP exams to take. AP classes and exams are also offered in many other courses that may be of interest to prospective psychology majors, including statistics, biology, chemistry, microeconomics, macroeconomics and physics.
Officially, students in their freshman year of high school may take AP courses and tests, but doing so may not be a smart move for most students. Not only could getting poor grades in an AP course hurt your overall grade point average, but you could also waste a lot of money if you start taking your AP classes before you are prepared to pass the AP exams. Generally, students must pay a fee – of around $100 – for each AP exam they take. However, even if you don’t pass the AP exam, taking these challenging courses introduces you to the concepts you will be expected to cover at the college level.
It’s worth noting that bachelor’s degrees in psychology can come in different formats. Undergraduate psychology degrees may be Bachelor of Science (BS), which generally emphasize research, science and statistics coursework more, or Bachelor of Arts (BA) programs that typically allow for more studies in the humanities and other disciplines.
Volunteer Outside the Classroom
A high schooler’s preparation for studying psychology in college shouldn’t end in the classroom. Formal studies aren’t the only way to gain an education during high school. Students can learn valuable skills and life lessons outside the classroom through extracurricular activities and volunteer experience in their community.
Volunteering can help you gain experience working with and helping troubled peers or community members facing mental health issues. One way to begin gaining experience in psychology, especially if you have an interest in counseling psychology, is through peer counseling. Peer counselors are high school students who undergo training that allows them to help fellow students talk about their problems and find resources to help. While a peer counselor is no substitute for therapy or medication for mental illness, this role gives you a rewarding opportunity to help your peers with issues when they just need someone to listen and understand, as well as to help them get help for more serious mental health concerns.
Volunteering in mental health facilities is another option, one that may be ideal for aspiring clinical psychologists. Hospitals and clinics are often looking for volunteers that can assist with administrative functions, community education and outreach functions and client-contact functions.
In addition to helping you gain valuable career-related experience, volunteering can also help you get into your top-choice schools. More than half of college admissions personnel surveyed agreed that community service affects acceptance, according to Forbes.
Think About Life After a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
High school is also a good time to begin planning for life after your undergraduate studies, whether that includes graduate school or taking using your understanding of psychology to work in a different field.
Earning your bachelor’s degree is undoubtedly a big achievement, but it is also one milestone along the path to a more distant destination: your career. For psychology majors, in particular, it’s important to begin thinking about your future beyond the bachelor’s degree as early as possible.
Many undergraduate psychology majors don’t go on to work in the field of psychology, according to the American Psychological Association. Instead, they use the skills they developed by studying psychology – including skills in research, writing, analyzing data and solving problems – in occupations in fields like education, business, sales, health and biological sciences, public affairs and administrative support.
If you want to become a psychologist, you will need to go to graduate school. A doctoral degree, such as a Ph.D. in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.), is the typical education required for clinical, research and counseling psychologists, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). You can also use an undergraduate background in psychology to earn a master’s degree in counseling, marriage and family therapy, school psychology or industrial-organizational psychology.
Psychology jobs without a graduate degree may include research lab manager, behavioral health technician, research assistant, research analyst and research coordinator.