How Much Does Course Rigor Matter for College Admissions?

Parents are often surprised to learn that GPA isn’t the only factor college admissions officers weigh when they look at a student’s classes. Course rigor is another important consideration that is often overlooked—and it is one of the most provocative topics Signet’s tutors discuss with parents. 


When parents go into the college application process focused solely on their student’s GPA, that myopic viewpoint can lead to outsized expectations of where their student should apply and anticipate acceptance.


Course rigor is a critical component of college preparedness because, beyond grades, it demonstrates a student’s ability to navigate challenging material successfully. Not every A is created equal, and in a scenario where two students have identical grades, the student with the more arduous courses will typically come out ahead.


A student’s GPA certainly matters, but the difficulty or strength of their curriculum matters just as much. And it’s this academic rigor—the rigor of a student’s combined course load—that proves their preparedness, determination, and mental toughness to college admissions officers.


Course Rigor vs GPA: 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 submitted scores. 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,” helps complete a student’s academic narrative. The more challenging the student’s chosen courses, the greater their course rigor. (Note that course rigor is not an indicator of how challenging a course will be to a particular student. It simply recognizes the course as generally challenging.)


Classes with designations such as AP, Honors, Regents, Accelerated, IB, and others, are generally considered to be rigorous courses with 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 Academic Rigor of Your Student’s Curriculum?

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 academic rigor, 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.


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 according to the resources available to them.


How to Help Students Decide What Classes to Take Next Year

Because academic rigor 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 rigor is important, but your student has other needs that must also be met for them to thrive. Colleges look 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.

Picture of 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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