Many colleges and universities consider academic rigor an important factor in admissions decisions.
Academic rigor refers to the challenge posed by educational experiences and expectations. High school success in rigorous classes is a strong predictor of college success, so academic rigor is weighted highly in college admissions.
Scheduling is a simple way to introduce academic rigor into a student’s college application. In other words, for admission into competitive universities, class scheduling does matter.
Students and parents are often under the impression that taking a full load of AP and honors classes is key to gaining admission into selective colleges. There is much truth to this position; AP, honors, IB, and college classes are common ways to introduce academic challenge into a high school curriculum.
That said, too many of those classes can inhibit a student’s success. During my time in high school, I took ten AP classes, an IB class, and six honors classes. I know firsthand the difficulty of maintaining a healthy mindset when managing that kind of load. In this post, I hope to introduce an alternative way to think about academic rigor and curricular planning.
Curricular planning should tell a story about the student. Admissions counselors don’t as easily remember Student A with a 4.3 GPA, 10 AP classes, and no further redeeming qualities as they would Student B who founded a coding bootcamp for underprivileged children in their community with a 4.0 who took standard English and history classes throughout high school.
(It cannot go without mention that Student B also took AP Computer Science and advanced math courses.)
Academic rigor should be introduced into a student’s schedule in a way that makes sense and reflects the story that a student hopes to tell about themselves. Are they an activist who hopes to eventually expand social services through the legal system? The student should challenge themselves in English and social studies, but shouldn’t necessarily pressure themselves in AP math and science classes. Are they an aspiring public health researcher who wants to make a difference across the Atlantic? In this case, an AP Statistics class with challenging life science and social studies classes could support that story.
Finding your story in the first place is difficult. The above examples about our coding tutor, activist, and researcher, are surely intimidating, but not all compelling stories are like that. A student who overcame difficulties with a transition to a new high school to become a strong all around student is a compelling story. A student who worked throughout high school to support their family but still challenged themselves in the orchestra at school is a compelling story. The thing that makes each story compelling is that the student pushed themselves towards their goals academically. In all cases, community and extracurricular activities are important, but each student also shows academic perseverance and challenge.
Of course, some schools have their pick of the litter when it comes to selecting which students to admit. There are twenty four schools in the United States with sub-ten percent acceptance rates and many more with sub-twenty percent acceptance rates. At these schools competition is fierce, and smaller things can make a difference. If a student aims this high, they should be prepared to succeed in as many advanced classes as possible.
These schools are no exception when it comes to the student’s story, however. In fact, the story should be even more compelling to earn admission to these top schools. When a student is competing with other students with similar levels of success in rigorous classes, the story they can tell about themselves will differentiate them and imbue confidence in admissions counselors that the student can make a unique and active contribution to their future campus community.
Practically, it is important to balance two things: grades and academic rigor. Grades are similarly weighted highly in admissions decisions. Remember, success in rigorous classes is the strong predictor of college success. The best course schedule will contain classes that challenge students while still allowing for them to succeed. If a student can succeed in a full load of tough classes while still telling a compelling story on their application, by all means do so.
That is however, just not a reality for most students. Even the students that can do so still give up time they could be using to develop their story with community involvement and pursuit of interests outside the classroom. Students, parents, and admissions counselors will all appreciate the more nuanced approach to curriculum planning.