Seniors: Get a head start on your college apps this summer!
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Importance of Course Rigor When Applying to College

As students begin a new school semester, they will soon be meeting with their college counselors to begin planning for the summer and the next school year. One important part of the counseling process is ensuring that students are taking the proper courses that match their academic ability, interests, and ultimately their college admissions goals.

For many students and parents, course selection can be an afterthought. Most tend to focus on grades and test scores, and do not realize that the types of classes that students take in high school, regarding both the level and content, can influence admissions decisions further down the line.

How Colleges Evaluate Course Rigor

In order to understand how high school courses factor into the admissions process, students and parents first need to know what colleges look at when evaluating applications.

When reviewing an applicant, the emphasis isn’t just on general grades, test scores, and essays. College admissions officers most evaluate students on these more specific core components:

  • GPA
  • Course Rigor
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Strength of School
  • Essays
  • Demonstrated Interest


More and more, colleges are placing an emphasis on course rigor because they want to ensure that students are prepared to handle a college course load. If a student is applying to a highly selective college, but has only taken one or two advanced classes, it is likely that the admissions officer reviewing that applicant will wonder whether or not that student is prepared or motivated enough to handle the academic rigors of that particular institution.

When it comes to course rigor and grades, many families ask “Is it better to get an ‘A’ in a regular course or a B in an AP course?” In reality, students should be taking courses with increasing rigor each year, and maintaining strong grades in those classes. The best thing that students can do is get the ‘A’ in the AP course!

Keep in mind, however, that colleges look at course rigor in the context of the high school itself, which is where strength of school comes in. If a high school is seen as not as academically strong and offers few advanced courses, colleges will take that into consideration. After all, it is hard for students to take more challenging courses if they’re not available.

On the other hand, however, if a high school is rated as academically strong and offers a plethora of advanced classes, colleges will expect students from those institutions to have taken a higher number of AP, IB, or honors classes. Highly selective colleges want students who have taken the most challenging courses available to them and excelled.

One way for students to supplement their course load if their high school does not offer a lot of challenging classes is to enroll in more advanced courses at a community college or consider taking some MOOCs.

Focus Matters, Too

Course selection is also important because it can help students focus their interests and learn more about a field they’re interested in studying in college. Colleges want to build a well-rounded class made up of specialists, and high school courses go a long way toward helping a student develop a focused area of interest.

If a student is interested in majoring in engineering, it’s not a good idea to take only art classes. Instead, he or she should load up on STEM courses like physics, calculus, chemistry, etc. Admissions officers will look for context like this to be sure that an applicant is serious about that major and not just applying to a program they think they have a good chance of getting into.

Remember, colleges have institutional needs, and if an applicant doesn’t come across as sincere in pursuing a certain major, that could work against his or her chances of admission. Colleges are wary of students who come across as likely to switch from a major that needs more students into one that is oversaturated. It’s important to be focused when applying to college, and course selection can factor into that.

How To Make Sure Students Are Taking The Right Classes

First, students should consider their college goals, and work toward identifying their core interests and how that influences what they want to study in college. If a student thinks he or she might be interested in a business major, consider taking an advanced math or economics course to test the waters. Now is the time for students to begin to focus their interests, and that starts with trying out a few things until they find what they’re truly passionate about.

Next, students should make a plan to meet with their college counselors early in the semester to evaluate the courses they’re taking now and go over options for next year. Counselors can offer a lot of insight into what courses are the most appropriate for a student’s abilities and interests, and help to craft a schedule that meets a students needs and goals.

Not enough academic opportunities at your school that match your goals or interests? Consider self-studying for a particular AP test. Not only will this help you gain a better understanding of a particular subject, it also demonstrates maturity and initiative.

Not sure if you’re taking the right classes this school year? Need help planning classes for the next school year or preparing for the admissions process? Contact us today for more information on our counseling services and how our team of expert college counselors can help you create a course schedule that will enhance your interests and help you stand out during the admissions process.

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