When the National Association of College Admissions Counselors surveys college admissions officers across the country, they always ask about the most important factors in admissions decisions. In Part 1, we talked about the top factor, student grades.

Today, we’re covering the second factor that comes up year after year, which has been “strength of curriculum.”

What is strength of curriculum?

The strength of curriculum, also sometimes known as course rigor, describes the types of courses you took in high school. Did you take a lot of lower level classes, non-academic classes, and slack classes? Or did you load up on gifted, honors, and AP classes and fill up your electives with academic subjects?

Why is course rigor important?

Your course rigor tells colleges a lot about you and your willingness to take on challenges. Colleges want students who know what they are capable and who seek intellectual challenges that push their boundaries. The types of classes you take can reveal these traits.

Course rigor goes hand in hand with grades when evaluating an applicant – you can’t really look at one without considering the other.

If you’ve got a perfect 4.0 but you’ve avoided taking honors or AP courses, college admissions officers will wonder why, when you’re clearly academically capable of more challenging work, you have chosen to avoid taking difficult courses. Are you, perhaps, not up to the challenge? Are you unmotivated? Are you scared of failure? None of these descriptors helps your chances of admission.

Just as it’s not a good idea to take super easy classes to snag that perfect GPA, it’s also not a good idea to overload yourself on really hard classes and tank your GPA. If, for example, you take 6 AP classes your junior year but you barely scrape a C in each of them, you’re not really showing college admissions officers how great you are at taking on challenges – you’re showing them that you don’t know just how much of a challenge you can handle, that your awareness of your own skills is limited, and that you may have a tendency to bite off more than you can chew. Again, not descriptors that make colleges line up at your doorstep.

The key is balance: You’ve got to figure out how much of an academic challenge you can really handle while still earning good (though maybe not quite perfect) grades.

The Good News

The good news is that the importance of course rigor should make you feel a bit more willing to take the plunge into some tougher classes. Since colleges value course rigor so highly, the fear of potentially earning a less than perfect grade shouldn’t keep you from taking that AP class you were thinking about.

The other good news is that you won’t be penalized if your school doesn’t offer a lot of AP or honors classes. College evaluate course rigor in the context of the available courses, so if you didn’t take any AP classes because your school didn’t offer any, your lack of AP classes won’t be held against you. Instead, colleges look to see whether you’ve taken the most rigorous courses that were available to you.

The Bad News

Everyone wants to know whether it’s better to get an A in an easy class or a B in a hard class; the bad news is that it’s better to get an A in a hard class. Balancing course rigor and grades could take some trial and error – you can’t ever approach high school as though it’s one or the other if you hope to create some stellar college applications.

Strength of Curriculum Tips

  • If you haven’t been taking challenging courses, start now. You can’t change the past, but you can always demonstrate a pattern of change.
  • If you find that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, visit with your school guidance counselor as early in the semester as possible. If it’s early enough, you can likely drop to a lower level class before your GPA is permanently damaged.
  • If your school doesn’t offer a lot of honors or AP opportunities, ask about dual enrollment. Many high schools partner with local community colleges to allow students to experience college level courses.
  • Don’t just take tough classes for your college apps – taking challenging courses will prepare you for college experiences, making college success that much more attainable.
  • Bring your transcript to your local C2 Education center to meet with one of our expert Center Directors; they can help you find the right balance between grades and course rigor.

Read Part 3: What College Admissions Officers Look For

Catch up on Part 1 and the importance of grades for college admissions.

Are you making the most out of your school classes? Contact your local C2 Education center to schedule a consultation.