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 counselorCome 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.
Ready to read about the class progressions of different classes through high school? Read out our guides to choosing: High school math classes, High school English classes, High school science classes, High school history classes, High 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:
It has become almost impossible to speak of a rigorous high school curriculum without also speaking of Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. To many people, they are synonymous: rigor and AP; rigor and IB.
Policymakers, educators, advocates for educational equity and journalists have all helped conflate these terms by using them interchangeably. With everyone jumping on the AP and IB bandwagons, it is easy to forget that claims of curricular rigor always merit scrutiny.
Politicians are among the most vocal champions of AP and IB courses. In his 2006 State of the State address, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota said: “Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs provide the rigor and relevance we need to prepare our students for the future.” He called on districts across his state to introduce AP or IB courses for all students, and he proposed spending $7 million on financial incentives for districts willing to do so.
The Advanced Placement program, which is administered by the College Board, offers 37 courses in 20 subject areas. In 2007, the College Board began requiring teachers to submit syllabi and receive individual approval before the “AP” label could be included on student transcripts. Teachers design their own courses and syllabi but these must meet various curricular and resource requirements specified by the College Board. Students can take an AP course without taking the AP exam, or can take an AP exam without having taken an official AP course. The exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 5 by more than 10,000 AP teachers and college faculty who come together each June for a weeklong scoring session.
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program offers 129 courses in six core subject areas to students in over 120 countries. Almost all courses are two years in length, and teachers design their syllabi according to IB specifications. Students completing the IB Diploma Program take exams in all six subject areas, which are graded on a scale of 1 to 7 by 5,000 examiners around the world. Additional IB requirements include at least 150 hours of extracurricular involvement, a 4,000-word extended essay and a 1,600-word “theory of knowledge” essay.
At more than $80 each, AP and IB exams are not cheap. Most states now receive federal money to subsidize the costs of such exams for low-income students. Many states have also begun to mandate that each district offer at least one AP course in English, math, science and social studies.
Enrollment in AP and IB courses has skyrocketed in recent years – 1.6 million students took AP exams in 2008, more than double the number who did a decade ago – partly because admissions officers at selective colleges, faced with unprecedented numbers of applicants, began expecting serious students to have taken the most challenging courses available to them. Another source of the growth is that advocates for educational equity demanded that low-income and minority students enjoy equal access to such advanced classes. Demand for these courses, as a civil right or as part of an equitable education, has even spawned online AP and IB classes for use in rural areas. Yet another explanation for increased enrollments is that Jay Mathews of the Washington Postbegan in 1996 to rank high schools on the number of AP and IB exams that students take. Mathews’ “Challenge Index” does not, however, take into account passage rates. The College Board has welcomed this trend, aggressively marketing AP courses to expand its customer base.
The AP program began in 1955 as a way to serve elite students by allowing them to complete challenging coursework in their final two years of high school that would then count toward a college degree. The IB Diploma program didn’t start until 1968, but it too had elitist roots. The IB curriculum, based more on the European model of education, was piloted first in international schools. Today, AP and IB courses have become the default college-prep curriculum in many high schools.
But amid this AP and IB frenzy, what evidence exists that such courses are actually rigorous? To answer this question, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute conducted a study in 2007 called “Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do They Deserve Gold Star Status?” The study looked specifically at AP and IB courses in English, math, history and biology. Among the criteria for judging each course was the “level of intellectual challenge” it posed for students. The study’s conclusion was that AP and IB courses are, in fact, “mostly gold and mostly worthy of emulation.”
But why? The study’s authors suggest that two elements characterize a rigorous curriculum: high academic standards and goals, coupled with rigorous exams well-aligned with the standards. The third leg of the standards and accountability tripod is teaching that helps students meet course demands.
This hardly sounds revolutionary. And yet AP and IB programs have succeeded – where states have largely failed – in setting high standards and designing well-aligned assessments. A closer look at the standards and assessments is thus in order.
Consider A1 Higher Level English in the IB curriculum: Over the course of two years, students study 15 literary works from various genres, time periods and regions of the world. Everybody studies at least one work by Shakespeare. Students become masters at analyzing prose and poetry they’ve never seen before, and they learn to comment intelligently on a writer’s style as well as his use of literary techniques such as irony, foreshadowing, and symbolism.
What drives the IB and AP curricula, however, is the exam. And this is why those who support these courses are sometimes seen as radicals: They do not view “teaching to the test,” an abhorrent practice to many, as controversial or a source of embarrassment. If the test is good, the argument runs, then teaching to it isn’t problematic.
What makes for a good test? In the case of A1 Higher Level English, the test involves a 15-minute oral exam on a passage from a literary work the student has studied; two essays completed at home (with teacher feedback on initial drafts); and two essays (each two hours long) written under exam conditions. Because students don’t know the topics of the final two essays until they sit down to write, they must be intimately familiar with the works they’ve studied. A typical IB English exam question is: “Examine the ways in which rebels, outsiders, or characters alienated in some other way from their society have been presented in two or three of the works you have studied.”
Superficial knowledge of Albert Camus’ The Strangerwill not suffice here.
All four essays are graded not by the teacher but by experts elsewhere. The teacher assigns grades for the 15-minute oral exam, but the exam is recorded and experts who listen to samples can adjust a teacher’s grades. For a teacher, this means there are no shortcuts to preparing students well: Each student must be able to speak and write cogently about prose and poetry he has never seen before. There also is no room for grade inflation. Unprepared students will do poorly, and these results will reflect negatively on their teacher. The stakes are high, but college credit awaits those who do well.
AP exams, by contrast, rely more on multiple-choice questions. The AP English literature exam, for instance, consists of a one-hour multiple-choice test (with 55 to 60 questions) and three 40-minute essays. The multiple-choice section counts for 45 percent of the exam grade, the essays 55 percent. Both assess a student’s ability to interpret literature.
But even AP exams that require students to know a lot of facts – such as those in U.S. and European history – also foster critical thinking among students. Consider the European history AP exam. It is not uncommon for students to learn by heart hundreds of significant events and the dates they occurred during five centuries of European political, economic and social history. Such memorization serves them well on the multiple-choice questions. But to write the essays – making a case for why the Treaty of Versailles led to World War II or why nation-states came to replace empires in 19th- and early 20th-century Europe – students must also understand how all of the facts fit together. They have to be able to see causes, consequences and trends. A decade or two later, students likely recall few of the dates they once knew. But what remains are the critical thinking skills they developed, which allow them to see the big picture and make connections among seemingly unrelated pieces of information.
AP and IB teachers realize what many others do not: that the “content vs. critical thinking” debate is a false dichotomy. The two sides should be seen as complementary, not mutually exclusive. And the debate is largely irrelevant in most high school classes, which offer a thin intellectual gruel that neither asks students to learn much content nor to think about what they do learn.
Yet, while AP and IB courses have spread in recent years, some schools and districts have decided to drop them. Their rationale is almost always that they wish to escape what they say is the curricular straitjacket imposed by such programs. AP courses in particular are dismissed as requiring teachers to cover too much ground too quickly.
When “coverage is king,” as some educators say, that coverage is often decried as mile wide and inch deep.
John Klemme, principal of Scarsdale High School in New York, justified his school’s decision to drop AP this way in an October 2008 Education Week letter to the editor:
[Our school] has made the decision to move beyond the AP curriculum – not because it does not serve many students well elsewhere who might otherwise not enjoy a rigorous curriculum, but because it does not mesh well with the intellectual aspirations we hold for our students. We are in the fortunate position to be able to deliver students richer courses of study in all disciplines that encourage higher-order thinking and habits of mind such as synthesis, evaluation, persistence, and tolerance for ambiguity in the face of difficult questions and problems.
Scarsdale has thus replaced AP with what it calls “Advanced Topics” courses. The move has raised eyebrows among some observers, who question the real motives of affluent schools that drop AP or IB. Bruce Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College, has suggested that the “independent schools moving away from AP are either reaching to define a new elite standard for the parents and students they serve – or, perhaps, a more cynical assumption is that they are just working to find another way to offer something which won’t be so easily measured by a common scale.”
In a January 2010 New York Times video op-ed entitled “Advanced Pressure: The Problem with A.P. Classes,” an AP biology teacher at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, Calif., said “the course is a runaway train. There’s no way we can cover all of the material in one year. It’s impossible.” The teacher, Jay Chugh, also said, “I feel like I’m doing a disservice to the students because I’m sacrificing quality of content for quantity of content.”
Deborah Stipek, Dean of the School of Education at Stanford University, concurred: “Unfortunately, it’s turned into a kind of gatekeeper to many universities, so now it’s not going deeper, really challenging yourself. It’s ‘how many AP classes can I rack up so that I have more AP classes than the people I’m competing with’ … and it creates a mentality that was expressed very well by my daughter. After her French AP test, she said, ‘I never have to speak French again.’ ”
Despite such criticism, the Advanced Placement program continues to enjoy tremendous growth and thus seems unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future.
Justin Snider is an International Baccalaureate examiner and a former high school English teacher. Currently, Snider teaches writing at Columbia University, where he is also a research fellow at the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.