When students choose their high school courses, lots of factors come into play. What are their academic goals? Do they have a strong enough grade in any prerequisite courses? What graduation requirements do they still need? Students who consider moving up to more challenging courses often ask me if grades or course rigor is more important. In other words, is it better to take harder classes like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment — even if they risk getting a lower grade? Or is it better to have a higher grade point average (GPA) by taking less challenging courses? Sometimes they have heard that AP or dual enrollment courses “don’t count” at many colleges or that colleges won’t consider a weighted GPA, which further confuses their attempts to pick classes.
There is a lot to unpack here, including 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. Two students might have very different college application experiences that depend not only on their standing as applicants – grades, courses taken, test scores, class rank, 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 context applies to your situation.
What are weighted grades? A grade point average (GPA) assigns a value to each course grade and calculates an average grade for the student over a semester, year, or full high school career. Some classes are considered harder than others, so a school might assign extra value to grades from those courses. The intention is that students still take demanding classes like calculus, fourth year Latin, or AP US History without worrying that their GPA will drop if they earned a lower grade.
There isn’t a universal standard for weighting grades. Some school add one point for any high level course. Others have complex systems with different additions for honors, Advanced Placement, or college courses. The same grades in the same courses might produce different GPA depending on the system used by each high school. So, 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 they are prepared for but that also challenge them to grow. Some students will prefer standard high school level (or college prep) courses. Other students seek out the greater academic challenge found in honors or college level courses.
What do colleges consider? Every year the National Association for College Admissions Counseling puts out a report on the State of College Admissions that includes a section on factors in admission. Grades and academic rigor consistently rank high as factors in college admissions. The majority of colleges list grades as of “Considerable Importance.” About half of colleges say that the strength of the curriculum at the high school and student test scores are also considerably important (though the importance of test scores is in flux). Course rigor and grades work together to create a picture of the student’s academic ability. The courses taken provide context for the grades; the courses available at the high school offer context for the courses on the transcript.
Many colleges also consider 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 in the classroom. The more selective a colleges is in admissions, the more likely they are to 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 comparing 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 simply taking more college-level courses, especially if that takes away time from other activities that make a student interesting.
What is the bottom line for students? Courses should be challenging enough to push the student to improve their knowledge without overwhelming them. Highly selective colleges tend to pick students with great grades and course rigor. Because they get so many applications, they can be very picky. On the other hand, students should ask if they are ready for a full load of the most rigorous courses and what they pay in opportunity cost. Maybe a course that relates to an intended major is a better option than an unrelated AP course. Advanced Choir might matter more than AP Spanish for a prospective music major. It’s also worth remembering that colleges that admit fewer than 25% of applicants only enroll around 3% of US undergraduates. Almost two-thirds of the incoming freshmen in college attend schools that admit over half of the students that apply.