The rigor—or difficulty—of the classes you take in high school (honors, AP, or International Baccalaureate) is a crucial piece of information colleges use to make admission decisions.

Geometry formulasIn fact, rigor is one of the top three most important factors that college admission officers regularly consider. The annual State of College Admission report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows that the factors which colleges consistently name as being of highest importance to them are: grades, rigor of curriculum, and standardized test scores.

Lamentably, the idea of “rigor of curriculum” is also one of the least transparent parts of the college application process.


The Lack of Clarity About “Rigor”

One of the most common pieces of advice a student will hear from colleges and college counselors is, “you should take the most rigorous courses that are available at your high school.”

However, the problem with this advice is that it does not meet up with reality. Rigor means different things to different colleges.

It is true that most highly selective schools expect high test scores, higher grades, and the most rigorous course load a student could possibly take at their high school. But giving the same generic advice to different types of students who may not be considering only the most selective schools in the country can result in a loss of clarity.

And worse even, it also leads to a lot of high school students in the United States stressing out over grinding away, trying to add the most difficult classes they can take to their schedule.

Obviously, that is not the most beneficial approach to the issue of “rigor of the curriculum.”

Trying to Aim for a More Balanced Concept of “Rigor”

In 2013, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a look at their own students to study how many AP classes would be “enough,” both in light of being beneficial for educational purposes and their admission process.

Interestingly, they found that:

  • Students who took up to 5 AP classes in high school were likely to have a higher college GPA.
  • Students who took more than 5 AP classes in high school, however, showed no improvement in college GPA compared to those who only took 5 or less AP classes.

Based on this research, UNC made the decision that, when reviewing applications for the next year, there would be no advantage for applicants who took more than 5 AP classes.

This is good news for those applying to college. Why?

Because these parameters have a lot more transparency than simply saying, “take the most rigorous course load that is available to you.” When colleges actually specify these boundaries, they help students have a definite idea of what is needed for them to apply.

However, the problem is that not enough colleges provide this kind of information.

Plus, what complicates the matter further is that colleges will often post the profile of their incoming class on their website, reporting on how many AP classes this group has on average. But disclosing this average does not help high school students to know what is enough.

In fact, telling them these numbers actually contributes to what you could call the “college arms race” for admissions, with the motto: “Take more and harder classes, get higher scores, do not worry about your health or if you are losing sleep, just do more, more, more…”

Clearly, that stance just compounds the issue.

How to Solve the “Rigor” Problem

First and foremost, get advice from someone who knows the process and the problems connected to it.

For instance, my advice in response to two of the most asked questions related to the difficulty of a curriculum is:

1. “How much rigor is enough?”

Take the most challenging classes that you are able to take. However, you have to make this decision for you, for your personal situation. It does not matter what anyone else at your school is doing, what your friends are taking, or what someone else took to get into your “dream” college. None of that matters.

You have to put your blinders on and focus entirely on your own academic abilities—your strengths and weaknesses—and be brutally honest with yourself. Sincerely ask yourself, “Am I ready for rigorous classes?” If you are and if you will learn, then take them.

However, if you are not ready, it is better to take the regular level of classes. Why? Because taking an honors class and keeping your head just above water (barely passing with a C-) will not impress a selective college. Instead, it will actually undo the benefits of taking the rigorous class in the first place.

Ultimately, in either case, whether you take a regular class or an honors level class, the most important thing is to do as well as you can.

2. “Should I take an AP class and settle for a B, or should I take a regular class and get an A?”

To be candid, there is no good answer to this question. In fact, one senior admission officer at a highly selective college is famous for answering that question with: “You should take the AP class and get an A.”

My general advice is, if you get a B in a difficult class, that is okay. But if you take a lot of challenging courses and do not get grades above C’s and B’s, you may want to consider taking fewer difficult classes.

If you would like my expert assistance and more personalized advice about choosing difficult courses in preparation for the college admission process, I invite you to contact me. I am an experienced Independent Educational Consultant who can help you make informed and thoughtful decisions.