Rigor or GPA? — Which is Better?

A parent recently asked if it is better to take rigorous courses (like Advanced Placement* or dual enrollment college courses) or to take less challenging high school level classes with the expectation of higher grades. Another parent told them that “colleges don’t look at the grade as weighted,” and they were concerned that taking challenging classes would mean risking a lower GPA.

There is a lot to address here, the first of which is how to be discerning about what you read and hear about college admissions. It is easy to hear one line of an admissions brief and miss the context in which it applies. Students may have very different college application experiences that depend not only on their standing as applicants – test scores, class rank, academic rigor, and extracurricular activities ̶ but also on the characteristics of the college – small liberal arts college, flagship state school, highly competitive private university, or local commuter college. It’s essential to look closely at when a statement might be true and if that applies in your situation.

What are weighted grades? Grade point average (GPA) assigns a number to each grade and calculates an average grade for the student over a semester, year, or full high school career. Some classes are much harder than others, so a school might assign extra value to grades from those courses. The intention is that students not be discouraged from taking high level classes like calculus, fourth year Latin, or other more rigorous courses; because their GPA might drop if they earned a lower grade. There is no single method of weighting grades. The same grades in the same courses might result in very different GPA depending on what system the school uses. Colleges look at GPA in the context of what is possible at a given school and also use information like class rank to evaluate student academic achievement.

What classes should a student take? Bottom line up front: a student should take classes that hit the sweet spot of being something they are academically prepared for while also challenging them enough to improve their skills. Some students will find their needs met by taking standard high school level courses. Other students will want the greater academic challenge found in honors or college level courses. 

What do colleges consider? Grades and academic rigor are major factors in college admissions. The majority of colleges say that grades are considerably important. About half of colleges say that the strength of the curriculum at the school and student test scores are also considerably important. These factors work in conjunction with each other. Grades are considered in light of the course load taken; test scores are considered alongside grades. 

Many colleges also look at other factors, such as extracurricular activities, personal interest, and student background; but primarily they want to admit students who have the potential to do well at the college. The more competitive admissions to a particular college might be, the more likely that a college will use additional factors to differentiate between students who have similarly high-level academic profiles. Because colleges may see transcripts using many grading systems, they may have their own system for considering grades, but this does not mean they ignore the difficulty of the courses.  These colleges aren’t just looking for the students with the most Advanced Placement courses. Some selective schools indicate that beyond a certain point there may be diminishing returns to piling on more college-level courses, especially if that takes away time from the other activities that make a student interesting.

What is the bottom line for students? Courses should be challenging enough to push the student towards improved ability without overwhelming them. At the same time, it might not be meaningful to over-enroll in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment courses – especially if the student is finding it hard to stay afloat in those courses. Don’t get blinded by the admissions realities at the most selective, most competitive colleges — those schools that accept less than 10% of applicants, but get the bulk of mentions in news articles about college admissions. These schools enroll less than 1% of first-time college freshmen. Two thirds of college freshmen attend colleges that accept 50-85% of applicants. 

Being well-prepared for college level work once they are in college is more important for most students than trying to achieve a flawless GPA.

Finally, let’s come back to the other parent in the initial question, the one who confidently said that taking a less challenging course was better because “colleges don’t look at the grade as weighted.” When you read or hear a global statement about college admissions, ask yourself if the statement is really true at most colleges for most students. In other words, does the advice hold true for both University of Southern California and University of South Dakota, for Stanford University and Samford University, for Southwestern College and Northeastern University. If it doesn’t apply across the board, then figure out if it is relevant to your situation before using this advice for decision making.

* Advanced Placement is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

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