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During this time of year, my meetings with juniors often begin with questions about next year’s coursework.  Families worry both about how much their student can handle and how colleges will view their curricular choices during the college selection process.  Jimmy can take 4 APs, but his Eagle Scout project will take up so much time after school.  He also wants to take the philosophy and world religion electives.  What should he pick?  Sarah wants to get into the State Engineering College, so should she take a lighter course load outside of math and physics to boost her GPA?

Most families understand the numeric output of the GPA.  But what really matters to colleges is what those little numbers represent—how much a student challenges herself, and the success she earns through those challenges.  So yes, colleges do care whether students take AP, IB, and honors courses.  To help families understand their options, the questions I try to answer for my juniors are: how do colleges measure academic rigor, and is there a “best” option when it comes to making honors selections?

What is academic rigor?

Academic rigor refers to the assumed level of difficulty of a particular class.  An honors course is presumed to be more challenging than a college prep course, and an AP or IB course is the most challenging of all.  When I read applications at Tufts, we viewed a student’s choice to take a more demanding class as a helpful metric for predicting college success.

How do colleges measure academic rigor?

This answer depends on the college.  Some colleges (for example, the University of California system) automatically recalculate students’ GPAs on their own standardized scale.  Other colleges may conduct a more holistic review of each application where individual admission officers review the nuances of each student’s transcript and make educated assessments.  For example, one high school in my territory at Tufts  offered a by-invitation-only Advanced Writers Workshop to the best 20 senior English students.  I knew to be impressed when I saw that course on a transcript instead of AP English.  In this holistic process, the professional reviewing the application assesses your child’s academic rigor in the context of the school’s course offerings.

What if you don’t have access to AP/IB courses?  How can you compete with students from other schools with more access to such opportunities?

You will not be penalized for missing opportunities to which you were never exposed.  You will be admitted to college within the context of the high school from which you are applying.  In large public systems, like California and Texas, state-wide enrollment measures ensure that top students at each high school are admitted, regardless of the high school’s curriculum.  In a more personalized holistic process, the individual reader will review the school profile sent by the guidance office, and evaluate you based on the opportunities available.

The Bottom Line

When making course selections for the upcoming school year, you should think about how you can continue to grow academically.  If 1 AP worked well sophomore year, try 2 APs for junior year.  If you were pleasantly surprised by how much you loved AP US History, try AP Euro and AP Government this year, even if it means not taking the jump to AP Physics.  And if taking 3 APs in 10th grade left you with two Cs (your first ever!), scale back for junior year.  You should find a balance that will stretch you without deflating your confidence; just because one can take a course does not mean you should.

Does your student need assistance with course selection and preparation of his or her college applications?  Learn more about how College Coach can help!

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Written by Becky Leichtling
Becky Leichtling is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Becky is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Education; prior to joining College Coach, Becky was a senior admissions officer at Tufts University and Carleton College.