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What Does a Rigorous High School Course Load Look Like?

Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | Jun 1, 2018 8:00:00 PM

Coursework/GPA

 

Chances are, you've heard the phrase "rigorous course load" before. You probably even know that this is something colleges really look for in applications for admission.

So how can you ensure that your high school course load is rigorous or challenging enough? How do you balance this with getting a good GPA? How do you balance the need for rigor with your limitations, extracurricular interests, family and friends, and desire to not overwhelm yourself?

Read on for our advice on choosing between harder classes and more classes, and harder classes and better grades. We also go over how many AP classes and electives you should take.

 

What Does Rigorous or Challenging Mean?

First off, what does the vague word "rigor" actually mean? And why do colleges value seeing you challenge yourself?

As it turns out, exposure to a rigorous curriculum in high school is a better predictor of academic success in college than the education level of your parents is, or even your test scores, class rank, and GPA are. And the best place to show that you've 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, hardworking, and willing to push yourself—especially since research indicates that if you have these qualities, then you're pretty likely to be a great college student!

 

How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed by a Rigorous Course Load

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 too overwhelmed by the challenge.

Part of showing good judgment and a mature level of self-guidance is being able to balance a hard course load with your extracurricular activities, job, friends and family, and other responsibilities. When in doubt, remember how many expressions there are for this exact situation: "Don't bite off more than you can chew," "Don't let your eyes be bigger than your stomach," etc.

Another way to think about a rigorous curriculum is to imagine your high school experience as an uphill climb. Most of the time you want to be farther up the mountain than where you were previously, hiking up steeper and steeper terrain and using everything you've learned 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're mostly climbing and not mostly resting, you know you'll get to the top eventually!

 

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 course load is up to you, a classic question students often have is whether they should show more breadth or more depth. For example, if you're into science, should you take every science course available at a basic level? Or should you focus on a couple of specific subjects, such as biology or physics, and take harder honors/AP classes in them?

Based on our experience, colleges tend to favor students who've taken a few harder classes instead of a lot of easier classes. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) 2017 State of College Admission Report, 52% of schools surveyed ranked strength of curriculum as considerably important in admissions.

Your transcripts should show how you've taken full advantage of the challenges available to you at your school—but always within reason, of course. This means that you should take progressively more difficult classes in each topic each year rather than jumping from intro class to intro class.

The general idea is to show that you're intellectually prepared for college-level studying, and that you've developed a habit of guiding yourself toward increasing challenges. This demonstrates grit, resilience, perseverance, and a mature 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 opt for harder classes. Most colleges say that a transcript that shows a student has taken increasingly demanding classes is more important than a transcript with a higher GPA. The NACAC survey reported that 77% of schools surveyed believe that grades in college prep courses (i.e., core classes such as English and science), as well as grades in all classes you take as a high school student, are considerably important factors in the admissions process.

But getting straight As in low-level classes, instead of trying for an honors or AP class, might suggest to colleges that you're not challenging yourself enough. It's like asking 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 isn't to say that all your classes should be as challenging as possible—this 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 want to demonstrate that you're able and willing to reach slightly beyond your grasp. The best course of action, then, is to challenge yourself most in classes that reflect your specific interests. So if you're a science whiz, you might consider diving more deeply into calculus, biology, or physics. If you're into the social sciences, you can take economics and psychology at high levels, even at the expense of taking AP Physics.

You never know what might spark your passion, though, so be open to finding challenge even in those fields you aren’t particularly interested in now.

 

Which Classes Should You Take for a Rigorous Course Load?

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

 

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

 

What Are My High School’s Course Progressions?

Planning a rigorous curriculum should start early (think 9th or 10th grade), and it should definitely take into account the way your high school has 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 possible ways you can progress through the required course load.
  • Ask how many electives you can fit into your schedule. Talk also about the elective opportunities your school offers.
  • Ask about prerequisites for honors, AP, and/or IB classes. Make sure you're clear on what you need to do to start taking a higher-level class than you were in before.
  • Ask about the possibility of independent study. This option might make most sense after you finish a particular subject’s course progression. For example, my high school offered five years of Latin (from 8th to 12th grade). A fellow Latin nerd and I took one of those years over the summer. With the help of our amazing teacher, we 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 section represents a year of high school. Divide each of these sections into smaller rectangles, with each rectangle representing one course you'll take that year.

Pro tip: Don't draw more rectangles than the number of courses you're allowed to take per year! 

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

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

 

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

 

How Many APs or IBs Should I Take?

You know what your school's course progressions are—but where do AP and IB classes fit in? And how can you know whether you're ready for these challenging classes? Read on for our tips.

 

Am I Ready for AP/IB Material?

There are a couple of different ways to check whether you are ready to take an AP- or IB-level high school class:

  • Get an outside opinion. For example, your teacher should be able to tell you whether you'd be able to handle the work load and meet the overall academic expectations.
  • If you took the PSAT or PreACT, use your scores to see where you stand. Your guidance counselor can look at these and then tell you whether he or she thinks you're ready to take AP and/or IB classes.

 

Where Is the Line Between Challenging and Too Much?

A good rule of thumb is to try for one to three AP classes per year of high school (probably not counting 9th grade). This kind of course load definitely shows a willingness to be challenged. 11th and 12th grade is the time to go even harder—if you think you're up to it.

For example, though I took only one AP class my freshman year and two my sophomore year, both junior and senior years I took four AP classes apiece. Sure, the added depth and breadth of what I was studying looked good on my transcript—but 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 the fine/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 such as visual art, theater, journalism, computer science, and philosophy can ultimately demonstrate your passions and interests to colleges.

Electives are also a way for you to showcase your strengths. For example, taking extra years of a foreign language or optional classes in STEM fields such as statistics or robotics lets you continue building upon your passion, while also raising your GPA and showing that you are willing to pursue rigor.

 

Sample Rigorous Course Schedule for Each Grade Level

By now, you should have a pretty clear idea as to what a rigorous course load is and what kinds of classes you can take to impress admissions committees. To give you an even better idea of what a possible schedule could look like, here are some sample course schedules for each grade level (from 9th to 12th grade). 

Note that you do not have to follow these schedules exactly when planning what courses to take, since your school's course offerings, your state's graduation requirements, and your own interests will likely differ from what we include below. That said, feel free to use it as a rough guide for how you might want to plan your future class schedule.

The following schedule would be most appropriate for somebody who is strong in the fields of math and science, and who hopes to study one of these topics at the college level. Notice how this student uses electives to take additional science classes (e.g., marine science and computer science) and to keep up her foreign language skills.

 

9th Grade Course Schedule

Fall Semester

  • Geometry
  • Honors Biology
  • Geography
  • Honors Language Arts
  • French 1
  • Physical Education

 

Spring Semester

  • Geometry
  • Honors Biology
  • Geography
  • Honors Language Arts
  • French 1
  • Marine Science

 

10th Grade Course Schedule

Fall Semester

  • Algebra 2
  • AP Chemistry
  • Honors World History
  • Introduction to English Composition
  • French 2
  • Physical Education

 

Spring Semester

  • Algebra 2
  • AP Chemistry
  • Honors World History
  • Introduction to English Composition
  • French 2
  • Computer Science

 

body_girl_computer_mathChoose classes that let you explore your academic interests on a deeper level.

 

11th Grade Course Schedule

Fall Semester

  • Honors Precalculus
  • AP Physics
  • US History
  • AP English Language and Composition
  • French 3
  • Health

 

Spring Semester

  • Honors Precalculus
  • AP Physics
  • US History
  • AP English Language and Composition
  • French 3
  • Physical Education

 

12th Grade Course Schedule

Fall Semester

  • AP Calculus BC
  • AP Biology
  • Honors English Literature
  • Honors Government
  • French 4
  • AP Statistics

 

Spring Semester]

  • AP Calculus BC
  • AP Biology
  • Honors English Literature
  • Honors Economics
  • French 4
  • AP Statistics

 

What If My High School Offers Few Rigorous Classes?

Not all high schools offer tons of challenging courses. If this is the case for you, what should you do to prove that you're indeed ready for college-level work? Here are your two best options:

 

Option 1: Look for Outside Options

Whether your school lacks advanced study options or lacks subjects you find especially compelling, one option is to take classes outside your school. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your school offer a dual enrollment program? If so, you could 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.

 

Option 2: 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's a good idea to include in your college application a description of what was and was not available at 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 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."

 

All colleges expect you to wear many hats.

 

What About Life Outside My Schoolwork?

One of the qualities colleges also look for in applicants is your time-management skills.

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

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

 

What’s Next?

Ready to learn about the class progressions of different high school classes? Read our guides to choosing high school math classesEnglish classesscience classeshistory classesforeign language classes, and electives.

Want to start planning a more rigorous class 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? Our guide spells out the differences between the two programs and gives you tips on how to choose.

Wondering if 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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