Course Rigor for College Admission

Chase Yano
December 28, 2023
The College Application Process

Choosing my classes for the next school year always brought me a lot of stress during high school. A multitude of questions always filled my head as I squinted at the tiny text of my school’s pink course selection forms. Which teacher is the best for Algebra II? Should I take Spanish or French? Am I on track to graduate? Chief among my questions, however, was, “How many damn AP classes do I need to take!?” I knew that it was important to take a “rigorous course load” in order to impress the selective colleges I knew I was going to apply to. However, I was still confused about what makes a course, and by extension, a course load meets these standards. Today, I want to discuss how to think about each different type of course that schools may offer in terms of course rigor with the ultimate goal of understanding how to tell if your schedule is rigorous enough.

Regular and Accelerated/Honors Courses

Let’s begin by talking about the bottom two rungs of our course rigor totem pole: standard and honors courses. Your classes which don’t carry any fancy titles, in addition to all classes to an extent, are evaluated based upon the rigor of the subject itself. Taking a multivariable calculus course will earn you more admissions brownie points than a graphic design course, for instance. Accelerated, honors, and any other type of “advanced” classes are great to take, but in the grand scheme of holistic admissions, I can’t give a prescription to how much better these are to take than their regular counterparts. However, I can suggest taking accelerated courses so long as they won’t be a detriment to your GPA because of a case of a notoriously tough teacher with rough grading or a workload that you know you won’t be able to balance alongside your other coursework and extracurriculars. While having a slathering of shiny “honors” stickers across your transcript will look good to the critical eyes of your dream college’s admissions officers, don’t lose sleep over missing out on an advanced class because of previously mentioned factors or schedule conflicts; there are other factors which matter much more!

Course Rigor: Dual Credit and Dual Enrollment

The next level of the course rigor hierarchy is dual credit courses: classes at a local college that you take for both college and high school credits. Depending on your college aspirations, dual credit courses can have two different levels of impressiveness. In the case that the credits you earn are directly transferable to the college you wish to attend, then they’re as good as you can get in terms of course rigor and usefulness! Unfortunately, this transferability is usually only applicable to public schools, which means that, for those aiming to attend selective private universities, take these classes for the same reason one takes an honors class but with an, in my opinion, greater “boost” to your application.

With both dual credit and the standard/honors classes your school offers, admissions officers have no way of knowing how difficult these classes actually are; the dual credit courses that were offered at my high school, for example, were leagues easier and less time consuming than any of the AP classes I took. Therefore, despite the fact that dual credit classes are literal college classes, I still deem them as less of a surefire way to demonstrate rigor on your transcript in comparison to the top two rungs of our course rigor ladder: AP and IB classes.

Course Rigor: AP and IB

For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar, AP courses are taken in preparation for end-of-year AP, or Advanced Placement, exams which are administered by the College Board. Getting sufficient scores on these exams can earn you college credits, even at those pesky private schools which turned their noses at our dual credit courses! However, mileage on this varies, so check for each school’s specific AP credit transferability policy on their website. Furthermore, AP classes are an excellent way to demonstrate a capability to manage college-level coursework and concepts on your transcript, as they are standardized and their high level of rigor is known by admissions officers.

A slight nudge above AP classes are IB, or International Baccalaureate, classes. Like AP courses, these courses are very highly regarded and are associated with some kind of standardized evaluation. IB, in addition, offers diploma programs, which is one of the most rigorous programs that you can undergo as a high school student.

Course Rigor Is All about What’s Available

After contextualizing all of these classes, we still remain at our initial problem: “So how many do I have to take?” And, on the other end of the academic offering spectrum, “Am I screwed if my school doesn't have 100 AP and IB classes?” The answer to both of these questions is to simply do the best with what you’ve got. When top school’s admissions officers review your application, they also look at an academic profile of your high school which includes the course availability and academic offerings of your school. Thus, you are always evaluated in the context of what you had, so if you only have two AP classes offered and took both, you wouldn’t be judged as less academically capable than someone who had 16 available and took six. However, the key here is that you took both of the two classes, and the same guidance of doing the most with what you have goes for the inverse of the offering spectrum, too. If you have access to 20 APs and IBs, that doesn’t mean you have to take all of them, but you should take enough to show that you are able to balance college-level courses with your extracurricular responsibilities. And, as you get closer to the end of high school, it becomes more and more important to show rigor. It’s completely OK, if you have access to a bunch of AP/IB classes, to go through your freshman year and sophomore year and maybe not have even taken any; just try to take as many as you can junior and senior year! But, if you started early and were able to take these classes through all of high school, even better! The most important takeaway from this discussion of course rigor is that the college application process is messy, and no one facet of your application matters in isolation. Those deciding your admission have a lot to consider in addition to the difficulty of your course load – your school’s offerings, your extracurriculars, your essays, your awards, your background, and the list goes on. In addition to how they evaluate you, they also have to think about what the class they are admitting looks like; they want to ensure that they have a student body that represents a wide range of backgrounds, talents, and interests. So, the answer to the question, “How many damn AP classes do I need to take?” is we don’t really know. Do as much as you can while being able to dedicate yourself to pursuits outside of school, whether that be a video game club, a soccer team, or a job at Best Buy. And, always remember that nothing is more important than your mental health; no matter where the random journey of college admissions brings you, you will be okay!

If you would like to discuss the rigor of your courses, or any other topic related to college admissions, with a tutor, you can contact Dewey Smart today!

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