How Much Do Challenging Courses Matter for College Admissions?

Parents are often surprised to learn that GPA isn’t the only factors college admissions officers weigh when they look at a student’s classes.

Tackling the topic of course rigor– that is, how challenging your student’s classes should be–is one of the most challenging conversations our expert tutors have with parents. Many parents go into the college application process solely focus on their student’s GPA. That focus can create a myopia along with outsized expectations of where their student should apply, and expect to be accepted.

The fact is that not every “A” is created equal. A student’s GPA counts, but the difficulty or strength of their curriculum matters just as much.

High Grades or Challenging Courses: Which Matters More for College Admissions?

When it comes to college applications, the most important elements have remained the same for the last 10+ years. Research by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) shows that colleges weight the following factors most heavily:

  • overall GPA
  • grades in college preparatory coursework (e.g., AP and Honors courses)
  • strength of curriculum (i.e., course rigor)
  • standardized test scores (ACT and SAT test scores)

A student’s grade point average (GPA) is fairly self-explanatory: the higher the GPA, the better.

As for test scores, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some shifting of the importance of SAT or ACT test score submission. As we’ve written about, many colleges have gone test-optional in the last 12 months, meaning that they do not require students to submit a standardized test score to be considered for admission. However, many students will still benefit from studying for and submitting a standardized test score, as test-optional colleges will review scored if submitted. The conversation around standardized testing is a nuanced one right now; contact us if you’d like to discuss your student’s individual situation to determine whether testing is right for them.

What Does Course Rigor Mean for High School Students?

Course rigor, or strength of curriculum as it’s sometimes known, helps complete a student’s “academic narrative.” It essentially refers to how challenging the course material is that a student chooses to take (note that it doesn’t necessarily indicate how challenging the course is for a particular student, just that the course is benchmarked as being challenging in general).

Classes with certain designations, such as AP, Honors, Regents, Accelerated, IB, and others, are generally considered to be rigorous courses or have higher strength of curriculum.

Why does curriculum strength matter? It indicates two important qualities to college admissions officers:

  1. the student actively seeks out academic challenges
  2. the student succeeds in these rigorous courses by getting good grades

How Do Admissions Officers Evaluate Curriculum Strength?

Let’s look at how course rigor appears in the eyes of a college admissions office. Suppose an admissions officer is reviewing two students, both of whom attended the same high school and both of whom have a 4.0 GPA. If one student has taken several Honors or AP courses every year, while the other has only one or two classes with demonstrated strength of curriculum, the 4.0 GPA starts to have a different value for each student.

Though both students got the same grades, the first student has a better case for admission. Ultimately, admissions officers view curriculum strength as an indicator that students are prepared for challenging college courses and also able to succeed in them. Since college courses can move swiftly and require significant independent study and time management, it’s important that students be able to keep up.

It’s important to point out that colleges also take into consideration the kinds of courses that are available at your student’s high school. For example, if your student doesn’t have access to Honors or AP courses, they won’t be expected to have taken them or ranked against other students who have had those opportunities. Each student is evaluated on the basis of the resources available to them.

How to Help Students Decide What Classes to Take Next Year

Because strength of curriculum plays such an important role in college admissions, even the classes your student enrolls in during middle school can affect their curriculum trajectory. If your student is capable of doing the work in Honors or AP-level courses, they should be enrolling in them as early as freshman year of high school. If your student tries to jump into an Honors track in subsequent years, they may be held back by certain prerequisites or introductory classes that have to be taken first.

At the same time, pushing your student into classes that are too demanding or that move too quickly can leave them feeling demoralized and overwhelmed. Academic needs are important, but your student has other needs that must be met for them to thrive. Colleges are also looking for applicants who seek challenges outside the classroom, which requires students to have the time and bandwidth to get involved in extracurriculars.

When choosing courses, consider the homework load and how that may impact extracurricular commitments and overall stress levels as well. Choosing the appropriate level of rigor, and encouraging your student to stretch a bit (but not too much) outside their comfort zone is probably the right fit.

Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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