What Do You Get When You Graduate High School?

Legendary filmmaker and comedy genius (in my honest opinion) Judd Apatow summed up the American education beautifully with the quote:

College is the reward for surviving High School

And how true can it be! While some people are worried that college is harder than high school, the truth of the matter is that it’s not: high school, at least for me, was definitely harder than college. And why wouldn’t it: most of us go through the most awkward phases of our life in high school. This is the time when your hormones are raging but your body hasn’t caught up, or vice-versa. Socializing was also much more difficult, with everyone in high school still trying to figure out who they really are, and finding birds of the same feather, while comforting, limited your mindset.

College, on the other hand, will give you more freedom to decide who you want to be, what kind of people you want to hang out with, and what you want to do in your spare time, all while studying courses that you actually enjoy doing. It’s a win-win situation that I hope everyone gets to experience!

So, if you’re one of those people who absolutely hate high school, from the stringent academic requirements to the awkward social aspect, don’t worry: you’re not alone, as 55% of teens feel like high school held many negative memories for them. To many, it may seem like a never-ending battle, but if you tough it out and power through, I promise you that your efforts will be rewarded once you enter college.

But I’m here to tell you that, as bad as it is, high school isn’t the end. In fact, graduating high school is just the beginning.

What Do You Get When You Finish High School?


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Other than the chance to experience the great American college life, you get two types of ‘degrees’ when you finish high school:

  • a High School Diploma
  • a High School Certificate

To get one or the other, you need to complete certain graduation requirements that your school, district, city, and state require. These requirements usually require students to take up a certain number of units for each core subject. Each state has different graduation requirements, and their schools usually follow a curriculum that ensure each student finishes those requirements. Some states might also require their students to take an exit exam as part of graduation, with students required to score a minimum number of points before they’re given a diploma.

On average, however, students must complete the following requirements:

  • 4 units of English language subjects
  • 4 units of Math subjects
  • 4 units of Social Studies subjects
  • 4 units of Science subjects
  • 4 units of Arts subjects
  • 4 units of P.E./Health subjects
  • 1-3 units of Foreign Language subjects (but only 31 out of 50 states require this)
  • 1-6 units of Electives

On top of that, each state will require students to take 1-3 additional units per subject, depending on that particular state’s educational requirements, including attendance (each state also different times when high school starts). Georgia, for example, requires students to take an additional 1 American literature/composition and 1 9th grade literature and composition. Meanwhile, Hawaii requires students to take 6 units of elective subjects (with Arkansas requiring 6 units of career-focused electives or 0.5 of Economics), while Michigan doesn’t require it at all.

The Differences Between a High School Diploma and a High School Certificate

You might have noticed that there are two types of ‘degrees’ you can get when you finish high school: a high school diploma and a high school certificate. But what’s the difference?

In short, a high school diploma is the degree you get when you complete all the education requirements of your school, district, city, and state. Meanwhile, a high school certificate means that you’ve completed high school, but did not meet all the requirements for you to graduate.

A high school diploma and a high school certificate differ in many ways: first, a diploma is only granted if the student fulfills all of the requirements set for them. A certificate can be granted on more flexible terms (but usually dependent on a student’s individual educational program).

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Earning a high school diploma makes you eligible to join the military and/or apply for a federal student aid program. Unfortunately, a high school certificate is not accepted by either of those institutions. A high school diploma is often the standard requirement for most colleges, although some colleges might consider prospective students with a high school certificate on a case-to-case basis. Most employers will also look more favorably on applicants with a high school diploma, while applicants with a high school certificate might have a more difficult time.

In place of a high school diploma, a student can also try to attain a GED, or General Equivalency Diploma. While not the same as a high school diploma, a GED is accepted by the military and is an acceptable qualification for most colleges and employers. Normally, GED’s are granted to people who stopped high school and are pursuing it again after a number of years, or immigrants whose home country’s educational system might differ from the U.S.

Meanwhile, a vocational diploma is a more acceptable qualification for people going into highly technical fields after high school. A vocational diploma is granted to students who finish a vocational educational system and have proven themselves competent in a particular technical field. These technical fields are often manual labor-related, and a vocational diploma will make the student more agreeable to employers, as they have proven skills necessary for their employment.

On the other hand, if you get really good grades in high school, you might be granted an Honors Diploma. An honors diploma is in addition to a High School Diploma, and is often granted to students who either complete an Honors program or have consistently achieved honors grades in high school. Holding an Honors diploma is your best bet into getting into Ivy League schools, as those types of educational institutions only accept the best of the best into their schools.

But don’t worry, there are various ways that you can enter a college of your choice even if you don’t have a high school diploma. The best way is to enroll into a community college and finish a 2-year Associate’s Degree. These degrees often cover many of the core subjects in other universities, and is often an acceptable qualification for most employers. It can also be used to spring-board into a more ‘prestigious’ university to finish a full Bachelor’s Degree.

At the end of the day, regardless of what you get when you finish high school, know that your educational journey hasn’t ended just yet; rather, it’s only just begun.

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