Today we address a topic at the heart of some of our most challenging conversations with families: course rigor. At the start of the college application process, some parents have outsized expectations of where their students can go, based solely on their GPAs. This situation tends to arise when students have good grades, but did not take challenging courses in high school

Here are some of the typical responses we hear:

    • “What do you mean she can’t shoot for those colleges? She’s got amazing grades and she’s an amazing student!”
    • “But he’s got a 3.95 and has only had one B+ in gym!”
    • “She has great grades and good test scores—what else is there?”

The thing that’s often missing in these parents’ assessment of their kids’ prospects is course rigor. In short, not all courses (and thus not all grades) are created equal. It’s not just your GPA that counts; the strength of your curriculum is just as important.

Our goal at Signet is never to recommend that every student shoot for the Ivy League; rather, our goal is to find the college that’s right for you. That said, if you’re academically motivated and want to push yourself to get into the most selective schools, you need to consider course rigor when you are choosing courses for the years to come.

What Is Course Rigor?

Each year, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) polls the thousands of colleges around the country to provide insight into the college admissions process for students and families. At the heart of this survey is a question about what colleges seek in their applicants.

For the past decade, the most important components of a student’s application have remained the same: grades in college preparatory coursework, GPA, test scores, and strength of curriculum. Of course, the other elements of the application are still important, but the primary focus tends to be on what we might call the academic narrative.

Grades and test scores are self-explanatory, but the concept of strength of curriculum (or “course rigor”) can trip up even the most savvy high school students and their parents. Put simply, “strength of curriculum” means the kinds of classes (AP, Honors, Regents, Accelerated, IB, and others) that a student chooses to take. The Harvard College website advises potential applicants to “pursue the most demanding college-preparatory program available.”

Why Is Course Rigor So Important?

Ultimately, college admissions officers are hoping to admit students who have demonstrated two important qualities via their course selection:

    1. That you’ve sought out academic challenges by taking the most rigorous courses available (as noted above), and
    2. That you can excel in this difficult coursework, since that illustrates your ability to succeed in similarly demanding college courses.

Strength of curriculum can be a stark differentiator on the college application. Consider two students with a 4.0 GPA from the same high school. One student took a few honors courses freshman and sophomore year, then several AP courses in the following two years. The other student only took a single AP course as a senior. Though both hold the same GPA, the first student has a much stronger academic profile, and will likely have a stronger case for admission. Perhaps more importantly, however, the student who enrolled in the more rigorous coursework will also be much more prepared for the intellectual challenges of the college classroom.

It’s Not Too Early (or Too Late)

Because of the key role that strength of curriculum plays in the admissions process, course selection as early as middle school can impact a high school senior’s application. By enrolling in the “honors” track of courses beginning in the freshman year of high school, for example, a student is positioning herself well for rigorous courses throughout high school. Conversely, neglecting to enroll in higher level coursework could minimize your opportunities to take other courses later. (If your high school does not offer honors or AP courses, you will not be expected to take those. College admissions officers evaluate your application—and the strength of your curriculum—based upon what is available at your school.)

As you consider course selection for next year, be mindful of choosing the appropriate level of rigor, while also balancing other needs. Colleges want students who challenge themselves outside the classroom as well, and in order to do this, you need to have time and energy after school work. So when choosing courses, consider the homework load and how that may impact extracurricular commitments and overall stress levels as well.

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