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Last updated March 21, 2024

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What is Course Rigor?

Key Takeaway

Course rigor is really important in college admissions. The level of your coursework contributes to your "academic score" and can affect whether or not you are admitted. If you're aiming for top schools, you should take rigorous courses. However, you should also find a balance that doesn't compromise your mental health or overall well-being.

Ah, the age-old question: should I take AP Bio and risk getting a B, or should I do general Bio and skate my way to an A+? Should I opt for Statistics because Calculus seems scary? Should I take a free period or double up on science? Does it really matter?

In short: yes, it does!

These questions all come down to the concept of “course rigor.”

Course rigor is all about the difficulty of your courses. And it matters a lot in college admissions.

Let’s get into it.

What is Course Rigor?

“Course rigor” refers to the level of your coursework. A "rigorous" course is, by definition, challenging. Within the world of college admissions, Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or dual-enrollment (DE) courses tend to be perceived as the most rigorous. Some schools may also offer their own internal “honors” designations to indicate that a course is more rigorous than others.

These courses are considered “rigorous” because they were designed as college-level classes for high school students. They typically cover more material and expect more of students’ understanding and academic performance.

All this said, it’s important to remember that course rigor is always evaluated within school context. If your school only offers 5 AP courses, your transcript won’t be evaluated the same was as someone whose school offers 25 AP classes. Admissions officers are experts on school context, so don’t worry about explaining yours in your application (that’s what the school profile is for!).

The Role of Course Rigor in College Admissions

Pretty much all colleges, even less selective ones, will look at your level of course rigor. That’s why it’s one of the factors in the Common Data Set Basis for Selection table.

Schools pay attention to course rigor because it contributes to your “academic score.” The more rigorous your classes, the better your academics will be in an admissions officer’s eyes.

So why is that?

Take this example:

Student A has taken standard-level English, Math, Science, and Social Studies throughout high school. They’ve taken as many free periods as they can, and their highest math level is Algebra II. They’ve maintained a pretty solid unweighted 3.5 GPA.

Student B took honors classes in 9th and 10th grade and has moved their way up to taking multiple AP classes in junior and senior year. In their senior year, they’re taking AP Calculus, AP Chemistry, AP Physics C, AP Lang, and standard history. They also have an unweighted GPA of 3.5.

Of students A and B, who do you think is more prepared for college coursework?

I’d wager that Student B is. We can tell that from their level of course rigor.

So rigorous courses prepare you better for the challenges of a college workload. Admissions officers become more confident in your ability to handle college coursework when you’ve already shown that you can excel in demanding classes. And because rigorous classes require higher levels of analytical and writing skills, your application will probably be better off, too, because you’ll be a better writer from the start.

Admissions officers value an A in a rigorous class more than an A in a less demanding one. In fact, they might even appreciate a B in a rigorous class more than an A in an easy class. By opting for challenging courses, you show that you have initiative and are ready to tackle the intellectual challenges of college—traits that make admissions officers more likely to admit you.

Balancing Course Rigor, GPA, and Mental Health

If that’s the case, you might be thinking, then shouldn’t I sign up for all the rigorous courses I can?

Not necessarily.

Taking on too much rigor may overwhelm you and cause you to become stressed and burnt out, which may result in you doing worse in all your classes.

Say it with me: I should only take on as many rigorous courses as I can reasonably handle!

The secret is in selecting as much rigor as you can manage without compromising your well-being. GPA is really important in college admissions, but not at the expense of your health and happiness. And a B in a rigorous course might be better than an A in an easy one, but a transcript full of Cs and Ds in rigorous courses won’t do you much good.

So feel free to push yourself, but be realistic about your time, abilities, and overall health.

What if I can’t handle the most rigorous course load?

Let me let you in on a secret. Not everyone has to take the most rigorous courses. Not everyone has to go to a highly-selective school.

You might be excellent in some areas and find others challenging. The goal of school is always to challenge yourself, but not to a point where you can’t actually handle it.

Yes, highly-selective schools will be looking for as much course rigor as possible. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t have any options if you opt not to take rigorous courses. In fact, you can get a great education at all kinds of schools when you prioritize things like teaching quality.

That’s where making a smart college list comes into play. By the time you’re applying to schools, you should have a sense of where you’re competitive based on your grades and course rigor. Build a school list that will set you up for success from the start.

Balancing Course Rigor and Mental Health

This brings us back to where we started. Your mental health should be at the heart of your decision-making process. If you’re taking one AP class and really struggling to balance everything, then maybe it’s not the best idea to add two more APs next year.

If you’re unsure of what’s best for you, always reach out to your teachers or school counselor. They’re there to help you make the best choices given your background and your school context.

In a Nutshell

Course rigor is about how challenging your classes are, and it is an important consideration for college admissions. Rigorous courses not only prepare you better for college but can also refine your writing and analytical skills. Admissions officers value an A in a rigorous class more than an A in a less demanding one. However, don't take on more than you can handle. Find a balance between choosing rigorous courses and maintaining your GPA, all without compromising your mental health or overall well-being.


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