Academic Planning Basics for Counselors: What You Need to Know about Endorsements, Graduation Plans, College Credits and More

Posted by Thema Reed, Texas OnCourse on Jun 3, 2021 5:10:53 PM

One of the biggest hurdles middle school students face before entering ninth grade is planning their courses for high school. Once a student enters high school, they have the opportunity to revisit their course plans, explore work-based learning options, and take courses for college credit.

To graduate high school, Texas students are required to complete 22 credits as part of the Foundation High School Program. Students can customize their high school experience by completing additional requirements and graduating with an endorsement, the Distinguished Level of Achievement, and performance acknowledgments. It’s really important that students understand their options based on their future goals. For example, the Distinguished Level of Achievement is mandatory for students to be eligible for Texas’ Top Ten Percent program.

Texas students face a competitive and ever-evolving job market. Understanding their course options and putting together a strong graduation plan helps ensure that students will graduate from high school with the resources and knowledge they need to succeed in college or their chosen career. 

This article outlines the basics of academic planning for educators. For more in-depth information, including resources, handouts, and tips for implementing this information in the classroom, check out the Academic Planning badge in the Texas OnCourse Academy.

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What you’ll find on this page

In this article, we’ll give you a complete breakdown of academic planning from an educator perspective – from endorsements to graduation plans and college credit.

Click below to navigate to each section or keep scrolling to read it all!


What is an endorsement?

Endorsements can be a tricky topic to explain to students, families, and even new educators. An easy way to understand them is to think of them as college majors for high school students. An endorsement is a course sequence that is grouped by interest or skill. They help students explore and gather in-depth knowledge about a subject area related to their post-high school aspirations. A student’s endorsement should help them explore a career path, gain knowledge, and ultimately feel more prepared to enter their desired career!

High School Endorsements The Basics

There are five endorsements that students can earn: STEM, public service, business and industry, arts and humanities, and multidisciplinary studies. Each endorsement enables students to take courses that relate to a student’s desired profession. Each student is required to earn 26 credits within their endorsement. Take a look at the endorsement choices of Texas 9th graders in 2015-16.

2013’s House Bill 5  allows each district to decide which endorsements they will offer. However, based on course offerings required by State Board of Education rules, most districts should be able to offer at least three endorsements.

Students earn an endorsement by completing the curriculum requirements for the endorsement, including four credits each in both math and science, and two additional elective credits. Educators should start teaching students about endorsements in middle school to prepare them to select an endorsement before they enter ninth grade.

When and how students pick endorsements

The endorsement selection process begins in seventh grade when students start exploring their interests and taking career assessments to determine their post-high school goals.

Before ninth grade, a student selects the endorsement that will chart their path throughout high school. The student’s counselor and parent or guardian sign off on their chosen endorsement before they enter high school. Then the student completes the courses outlined in their endorsement and explores related career interests throughout high school. If their interests change, students have the option to switch endorsements or to graduate with more than one endorsement. Depending on when they make this decision, they may need a counselor’s support in figuring out how to meet any new endorsement requirements by the time they graduate.

Basic Endorsement Milestones

Texas OnCourse offers two free tools that can help middle and high schoolers select endorsements. MiddleGalaxy is a fun game that helps students learn about different careers and how their skills and passions line up. We recommend introducing the game in sixth or seventh grade.

We also offer MapMyGrad, an interactive website that allows students to explore their interests and talents with a short quiz that maps their interests and strengths to an endorsement. Students can then use the Texas Grad Planner to pick their courses, then save or print them to discuss with their counselor. 

When helping students select an endorsement, we suggest starting by discussing your student’s professional plans after high school. If they haven’t yet decided on a career, administering a career assessment may be a good place to start.

Once students have a career in mind, it’s a good idea to identify a career cluster and pathways suited to their interests, personality, and goals. Then, assist students in identifying which available endorsement best aligns with their career cluster.

Remember, students are still in the exploratory phase of career development. It’s important to let them know that their goals and desires may change. It’s okay to explore their options or change their mind at any point.

If a student chooses to graduate without an endorsement, they must alert their counselor after sophomore year. The counselor, student, and parent or guardian will then meet to discuss the decision.

Types of endorsements

There are five endorsements that Texas schools may offer to their students: 

  • Multidisciplinary Studies
  • Business and Industry
  • STEM
  • Public Service
  • Arts and Humanities

If a district is only able to offer one endorsement, Texas law states that it must be the Multidisciplinary Studies endorsement. This endorsement offers the most versatile information that can meet the needs of many different students and careers.

Multidisciplinary Studies may also be an option for students who are unsure of their school path, as it can allow them to explore different interests in a variety of elective classes. Students who are interested in a multidisciplinary career such as interior design or city management may also find this endorsement to be a good choice. 

Keep in mind that there may be more than one endorsement that could prepare a student for a specific career path. Students should choose the one that is best suited for them based on their skills, personality, and goals. Students may also choose to select more than one.

Endorsement curriculum requirements

A student may earn an endorsement by successfully completing the following:

Business and Industry endorsement requirements

The Business and Industry endorsement is attained by completing a series of courses selected from one of the following:

  • CTE courses with a final course from one of the following career clusters: Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources; Architecture and Construction; Arts, Audio/Video Technology and Communications; Business, Marketing, and Finance; Hospitality and Tourism; Information Technology; Manufacturing; or Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics
  • The following English electives: public speaking, debate, or advanced broadcast journalism including newspaper and yearbook
  • Technology applications
  • A combination of credits from no more than two of the categories listed above 

Public Service endorsement requirements

The Public Service endorsement can be earned by completing a series of courses selected from one of the following:

  • CTE courses with a final course from one of the following career clusters: Education and Training; Government and Public Administration; Health Science; Human Services; or Law, Public Safety, Corrections, and Security
  • Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC)

Arts and Humanities endorsement requirements:

The Arts and Humanities endorsement can be attained by completing a series of courses selected from one of the following:

  • Social studies
  • The same language (four levels) in languages other than English
  • Two levels each of two languages in languages other than English
  • American Sign Language (ASL)
  • Courses from one or two categories (art, dance, music, film, or theater) in fine arts
  • English electives that are not part of the Business and Industry endorsement

Multidisciplinary Studies endorsement requirements

The Multidisciplinary Studies endorsement can be earned by completing a series of courses selected from the following:

  • Four advanced courses that prepare a student to enter the workforce successfully or postsecondary education without remediation from within one endorsement area or among endorsement areas that are not in a coherent sequence
  • Four credits in each of the four foundation subject areas, including English IV and chemistry and/or physics
  • Four credits in AP®, IB®, or dual credit selected from English, mathematics, science, social studies, economics, languages other than English, or fine arts

For more in-depth information, download our Endorsement Basics Toolkit or visit the Career Clusters, Pathways, and Endorsements module in the Texas OnCourse Academy.

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Graduation plans

An endorsement is an element of a student’s graduation plan. Around the same time students select their endorsements, they will also need to start creating their broader graduation plan. High School Personal Graduation Plans are like roadmaps that help lay out each student’s plan for success after high school. In 2013, House Bill 5 required each high school student to outline their academic and career goals entering ninth grade. This document, called a personal graduation plan, is a contract between the student, guardian, and school.

The plans outline a student’s academic course sequence, postsecondary plans, and any certifications or licenses a student will pursue during high school.

Data shows that when a high school personal graduation plans align with career goals, students are more likely to graduate and less likely to drop out.

What's in a graduation plan?

Each Education Service Center, district, and school has the power to structure high school personal graduation plans in a way that makes the most sense for their students. That means there are many different types and styles of graduation plans. You should check with your district to see what graduation plans should look like at your school.

To be accepted by the state, the graduation plan must include a course of study or endorsement pathway that promotes college and workforce readiness and facilitates the student's transition from secondary to postsecondary education.

Every graduation plan should document:

  • the sequence of courses a student will take in high school;
  • post-secondary plans aligned with career goals; and
  • college- and career-readiness skills that the student has developed.

The value of a high school graduation plan is that it encourages a student to prepare for their future while highlighting the relevance of high school learning opportunities. Students should consider ways to incorporate opportunities for career development, exploration, and skill-building into their graduation plan.

How to build a graduation plan

A student’s high school graduation plan will depend on your school or district’s requirements and student goals. Ultimately, you know your student best! However, there are steps that an educator can follow to help a student create the most comprehensive plan.

  1. Have your student build a career portfolio.
  2. Have your student choose an endorsement.
  3. Build a list of core courses based on your student’s endorsement.
  4. Set up an individual planning session with your student and their parent or guardian.
  5. Finally, build your student’s course schedule.


Encourage students to take an active role in creating their graduation plan by having them explore their interests, skills, values, aspirations, and desired lifestyle. There are many ways to keep students engaged throughout the process, including career assessments and work-based learning opportunities.

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Distinguished level of achievement

High-performing students may earn a Distinguished Level of Achievement, meant to open up educational and career opportunities for dedicated students. Under the Distinguished Level of Achievement, students must take more math and science credits and must complete an endorsement. Thankfully, there are lots of advantages for students attaining the Distinguished Level of Achievement, including more financial aid options, better preparation for college-level coursework, and an ability to gain top 10% automatic admission eligibility at a Texas public university.

Distinguished Level of Achievement Requirement

To graduate with a Distinguished Level of Achievement, student much earn:
  • A total of four credits in math, including Algebra II
  • A total of four credits in science
  • Successful completion of an endorsement in a student's area of interest

Distinguished Level of Achievement Benefits

The Distinguished Level of Achievement allows students to:

  • compete for top 10% automatic admission eligibility at a Texas public university;
  • position themselves among the first in line for a TEXAS Grant to help pay university tuition and fees; and
  • ensure that they are among the more competitive applicants at the most selective colleges and universities.

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College credits in high school

As part of their personal graduation plan, students may decide to take courses that provide them with college credits in high school. Data shows that students who earn college credits in high school are more likely to graduate on time and may save money on college costs. There are several different types of college credit programs. Make sure to explore options with your students to determine which college credit program is right for them.

college credits


Types of college credit

There are five types of college credit opportunities that students may take advantage of in high school:

  • Advanced Placement (AP): The AP program, offered by College Board, includes both a college-level course taken in high school and an exam that determines college credit. Students may take just the exam if they wish. Most two and four-year colleges recognize AP credits.
  • College Level Examination Program (CLEP): With CLEP, students earn college credits by passing an exam that shows that they have mastered college-level material. No prep course is required.
  • Dual Credit: Dual credit allows students to take classes that give them both high school and college credit. Programs are often offered between high schools and colleges.
  • Dual Enrollment: Dual enrollment allows high school students to separately enroll in a college class while in high school. High school credit is given on the student’s high school transcript and college credit is given on their college transcript. An example of a dual enrollment program is Texas OnCourse’s sister organization, OnRamps.
  • International Baccalaureate: The IB program allows students to take college-level courses while in high school and offers an internationally recognized diploma. Similar to the AP program, it includes a college-level course and exam. However, a student must take the course and pass the exam to receive credit.

Comparing college credit

Different types of college credit may be better for different students. For example, a student who intends to go to a college in a different country should participate in the International Baccalaureate program. Programs with exams often charge fees, and enrollment differs from program to program. Talk with your students to see which programs best fit their needs.

It’s also important to remember that different schools may have different policies about what kinds of college credits they allow and how they will apply for the credits. Have your students research their desired institution’s policies and procedures with college credits.

Check out this handout with more in-depth information on each college credit program.


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Work-based learning

A student’s personal graduation plan may also outline opportunities for a student to pursue work-based learning. Work-based learning is an experience that provides students with real-life work training. Work-based learning allows students to apply what they have learned in classrooms to real work situations which can give students the hands-on experience they need to decide whether a career is a good fit for their skills and personalities. Work-based learning may also connect students with professionals who can help them reach their goals and give them the opportunity to earn experience before ever leaving high school. 

Work-based learning can take place in many situations, including at school, in the community, or at a workplace. Learn more about how to partner your school with the workforce for work-based learning.

Types of work-based learning

Informational Interview

An informational interview is a meeting between a student and a worker. The student asks questions to better understand the field in which the other person works. This allows the student to get a first-person account of what the job is like and whether the career will interest the student.

Job Shadowing

During job shadowing, a student is paired up with a professional and follows that professional during their workday. This gives students the chance to experience a career firsthand and learn about the responsibilities that the career entails.


An internship is an opportunity for a student to gain experience by working for an employer for a short amount of time, providing hands-on experience. This can help a student explore the career and whether the required skills and functions align with the types of tasks they will need to complete as a professional.


Mentorships are an opportunity to receive one-on-one support and guidance from a professional, especially on a research-based independent study project. The professional may give students feedback, guidance, or help them gather knowledge.


An apprenticeship is a workplace-based opportunity for students to get firsthand knowledge of how a specific industry works, earn a decent wage, learn key skills, and gain the qualifications that future employers need, all while putting the skills they learned in school into practice.

On-the-Job Training

On-the-job training is a work-based opportunity for students to learn the skills they need to gain entry or advancement in a profession. On-the-job training typically occurs before being hired for a longer-term position.

Benefits of work-based learning

Work-based learning can be beneficial for both students and employers. It gives students the opportunity to explore careers and pick a profession that is aligned with their goals and talents. For employers, it provides a look at the future workforce. This gives employers the chance to understand the education and training that they will need to offer and the opportunity to increase their reputation with future employees.

To learn how to create work-based experiences in your school, review the Work-Based Learning Experiences module in the Texas OnCourse Academy. In it, we discuss goals, strategies, and the four steps needed to create a program.

For more information about all topics related to Academic Planning, visit the Academic Planning course in the Texas OnCourse Academy.

To learn more about academic planning (including partnering with organizations and work places) and to download tons of free resources, log in to the Texas OnCourse Academy.

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Topics: Finances, Educators, High School, Financial Aid