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What Does a Rigorous High School Courseload Look Like?

Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | Aug 29, 2015 8:00:00 PM



Chances are, you've heard the word "rigorous courseload" before. You probably even know that this is something that colleges really look for. 

So how do you go about making sure that your course load is rigorous or challenging enough? How do you balance this with getting a good GPA? And how do you balance the need for rigor with your limitations, extracurricular interests, family and friends, and keeping yourself from being overwhelmed?

Read on for our advice on choosing harder classes versus more classes, harder classes versus better grades, and how many AP classes and electives to take.


What Does Rigorous or Challenging Mean?

So what does the vague word “rigor” actually mean? Why do colleges value seeing you challenge yourself?

It turns out that that exposure to a rigorous curriculum in high school is a better predictor of academic success in college than the education level of your parents, or even your test scores, class rank, and GPA. And the best place to show that you have been exposed to a challenging curriculum is through your transcript.

In other words, college admissions officers want your transcript to show that you are driven, hard-working, and willing to push yourself – especially since research shows that if you have these qualities then you're pretty likely to be a great college student!


How Can I Avoid Being Overwhelmed?

A rigorous curriculum is, at heart, a balancing act. You should take the most challenging courses that are within your ability to handle. At the same time, you should pace yourself so that you're not overwhelmed by the challenge

Part of showing good judgment and a mature level of self-guidance is balancing a hard course load with your extracurricular activities, jobs, friends and family, and other responsibilities. When in doubt, remember how many expressions there are just for this situation: don't bite off more than you can chew, or don't let your eyes bigger than your mouth.

Another good way to think about it is to imagine your high school experience as an uphill climb. Most of the time you want to be further up the mountain then where you were previously, hiking up steeper and steeper terrain, using everything that you have learned on this climb to help you keep going. But like all mountaineers, sometimes you need time to stop at base camp or just take a break. As long as you are mostly climbing and not mostly resting, you know you will get to the top.


Sure, they climbed all the way up there. But now it's hot chocolate time!


More Classes or Harder Classes?

Because much of your high school courseload can be decided by you, a classic question from students is whether to show more breadth or more depth. For example, if you're into the sciences, should you take every science course available at a basic level, or should you focus on a few specific subjects (like biology or physics) and take harder honors/AP classes in them?

In our experience, colleges definitely favor harder classes over breadth. Transcripts should show you taking full advantage of the challenges available - but always within reason.

This means that you should take progressively more difficult classes in each topic each year rather than jumping from intro class to intro class.

Basically, the idea is to show that you are intellectually prepared for complex college-level study, and that you have developed the habit of guiding yourself toward increasing challenge. This demonstrates grit, resilience, perseverance, and work ethic.


Why is this guy so chill? Because he has figured out his own carrying capacity perfectly.


Better Grades or Harder Classes?

Again, definitely harder classes. Most colleges say that a transcript that shows a student taking increasingly demanding classes is more important even than a higher GPA.

This means that getting straight A’s in low-level classes, instead of trying for an honors or AP class, will look to colleges like you didn’t challenge yourself enough. It's like if you asked Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps to compete against 5-year-olds. Colleges would rather see you get a B in an AP course than an A in a regular course

Of course this is not to say that all your classes should be as challenging as possible – that goes back to the whole balance thing we talked about earlier. A D in an AP course looks a lot worse than an A in a regular course.

Still, you do need to demonstrate that you are willing to have some of your reach to slightly exceed your grasp. The best idea is to challenge yourself most in classes that reflect your specific interests. If you're a science geek, you might consider going deeply into calculus, biology, and physics. If you're into social sciences, you can take economics and psychology at high levels, even at the expense of taking AP Physics.

At the same time, you never know what may spark your passion, so be open to finding challenge even in those fields that you aren’t particularly interested in now.


Ok, So How Do I Figure Out What Courses To Take?

Now that you understand that colleges prize course difficulty over GPA, how do you decide on the courses themselves? This heavily depends on what your high school's course options and prerequisites are.


What are my high school’s course progressions?

Your school has already figured out how to get you from one step to the next.


Planning a rigorous curriculum should start early (think 9-10th grade), and it definitely should take into account the way your high school has already structured your learning from grade 9 to 12.


Step 1: Meet with your school counselor

Come to the meeting ready to take good notes – you're about to get a whole lot of information. It's probably a good idea to bring your parents to the meeting as well.
  • Ask about requirements for graduation. Discuss good ways to progress through the required course load.
  • Ask how many electives you can fit in your schedule. Talk also about the elective opportunities your school offers.
  • Ask about prerequisites for honors, AP, or IB classes. Make sure you're clear on what you need to do to start taking a higher level class than you were before.
  • Ask about the possibility of independent study. This may make most sense after you finish a particular subject’s course progression. 
    • For example, my high school offered five years of Latin (from 8th grade to 12th). A fellow Latin nerd and I took one of those years over the summer. With the help of our amazing teacher we then created a Latin 6 class our senior year. This took my passion for Latin literature even further and also definitely demonstrated rigor on my transcript.


Step 2: Draw a 4-year chart

Now that you have much of the information you need, you can start to make a plan.

Draw a chart, by dividing a piece of paper into four sections, each representing a year of high school. Divide each of these sections into smaller rectangles, with each rectangle representing one of course you will take that year. Pro tip: don't draw more rectangles than the number of courses you are allowed to take per year! 

First, fill in all the graduation requirements you learned about in your meeting. Make sure that you are planning to take a harder, more challenging class for each subject in each year. Then, with the rectangles that are still blank, you can start gaming out electives.

To help you, here are our in-depth articles about required and elective classes, from standard through AP:


How Many APs or IBs Should I Take?

Right now, it's balanced. But if you add one more?


Am I Ready for AP Material?

There are a couple of different ways to check whether you are ready to take an AP level class:

  • Get an outside opinion. For example, your teacher is in a good place to know whether you could handle the work.
  • If you took the PSAT or the ACT PLAN test, then you could use their metric to see where you stand. Your school can tell you if your results show that you are ready to go AP.


Where is the Line Between Challenging and Too Much?

A good rule of thumb is to try for 1 to 3 AP classes per year of high school (probably not counting your ninth grade year). This kind of course load definitely shows a willingness to be challenged. 11th and 12th grade are the time to go even harder, if you think you are up to it.

For example, although I only took only 1 AP class my freshman year, and 2 AP classes my sophomore year, both junior and senior years I took 4 AP classes apiece. Sure, the added depth and breadth of what I was studying looked good on my transcript. But much more importantly, it made my learning fascinating and engaging on a whole new level.


What About Electives?

Although the name makes them sound either optional or trivial, electives are nothing but. In fact, research indicates that students who take courses in fine and performing arts often perform better in school and on standardized tests!

In a rigorous course load, electives can be the bridge between what you need to do and what you want to do. Courses like visual art, theater, journalism, computer science, or philosophy, demonstrate your passions and interests.

Electives are also a place to demonstrate your strengths. For example, taking extra years of a foreign language or non-required classes in STEM fields like statistics or robotics, can continue building upon your passion, while also improving your GPA and showing that you are willing to pursue rigor.


What If My School Has Few Rigorous Classes?

Look for outside options

Whether your school lacks advanced study options, or lacks subjects that you specifically find compelling, one option is to take classes outside of your school:

  • Does your school offer a dual enrollment program? You could then take rigorous college-level courses that provide both high school and college credit.
  • Do you have the opportunity to take online or summer courses? This could be a way to fill in curriculum gaps. 


Explain your circumstances on your application

College admissions offices put a tremendous amount of effort into figuring out what your high school is like when they look at your transcript.

This is why if you go to a low-performing school, it is a good idea to include in your college application a description of what was and was not available in your high school

You should also definitely know that even the most exclusive colleges do not expect you to be able to provide coursework for yourself outside of what your school offers you.

For example, Yale's admission Q&A page stresses how much they take context into account:

“We know you did not design your school’s curriculum... Different schools have different requirements that may restrict what courses you can take. Again, we only expect that you will excel in the opportunities to which you have access.” 


What About Life Outside My Schoolwork?

All colleges expect you to wear many hats.


One of the things colleges also look for is your time management skills.

Being able to balance your courses alongside extracurricular activities that are also meaningfully sustained over time shows that you are ready for the kind of independent work and time management that will be necessary to succeed in college.

So if you find that so much time is going into your school work that you are neglecting every other aspect of your life, it's time to step back and reevaluate your challenge level.


What’s Next?

Ready to read about the class progressions of different classes through high school? Read out our guides to choosing: High school math classesHigh school English classesHigh school science classesHigh school history classesHigh school foreign language classes, and High school electives.

Ready to start planning a more rigorous schedule? Check out our guide to picking the right AP classes for you. 

A little confused about whether the AP or IB program is right for you? We spell out the differences between them and how to choose

Wondering whether a summer class is right for you? Explore our guides to the SIG, CTY, and Stanford EPGY programs.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Dr. Anna Wulick
About the Author

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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