College Admissions Advisors Answer Questions on “Rigor”

One of the most frequently asked questions advisors at International College Counselors hear is on “Rigor” and what do terms like “rigorous course load” mean and how rigorous should a student’s schedule be? We’ve listed some questions below with the answers.

1. How Do Admission Officials Weigh High School Rigor?

Comparisons are made when evaluating students. Admissions officers weigh everything from backgrounds around the world to the context of each high school. In other words, there is no one deciding, defining scale for “rigor”.

What admissions officers will agree upon is that students should take the most challenging course load that they can do well in, while still having enough time to show the deep and passionate involvement in activities that the colleges seek.

2. How many Advanced Placement courses should a student take in high school?

It depends on the student, the high school being attended, and the desired college.

Students can take zero to two AP courses and get admitted into a good college. Others can take five or six AP courses a year and get rejected from Harvard. How to decide?

For the most selective colleges, students need to take the most rigorous curriculum available within their own high school.

If a student is home schooled or the high school does not offer AP courses or enough AP courses, there are different indicators of rigor. Colleges are aware of different situations that may restrict what courses can be taken. What they really expect is that students excel in the opportunities to which they do have access.

However, students should be aware that they can take AP classes online. And, colleges know this too, of course!

3. Which are better International Baccalaureate (IB), Advanced Placement (AP) or Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) classes?

All of these curriculums have merit.

AP is the most common curriculum as it’s available to all schools either in school or via Virtual School. In AP classes, colleges and universities often grant placement and course credit to students who obtain high scores on the exams. In the IB program, students receive an advanced high school diploma and those who pass six exams can sometimes enter college as a sophomore. Students who receive an AICE diploma and pass the exams with a grade of E or higher receive college credit and sometimes advanced standing based on their scores in these examinations from the public universities and colleges in Florida and other schools around the country.

Students should check with each school about which credits or which scores are accepted. For example, some schools give students credit for 3s on the AP tests and some only accept 4s or 5s. And several schools outside of Florida don’t yet recognize AICE credits as it’s still a relatively new and predominately Florida-based program.

One curriculum is not necessarily better than the other. But once again, the student needs to take the most rigorous curriculum offered at his/her school.

4. Which is better: an A in the regular course or a B in the honors course?

The most accurate answer is: An A in the honors course.

This is how the joke goes, but it’s the truth.

Colleges like to see students challenging themselves. So the direct answer is: A ‘B’ in an honors course is better that an ‘A’ in regular. A ‘B’ in an AP course is better than the ‘A’ in honors.

Colleges are looking for students who push themselves, are intellectually curious and are interested in learning. More demanding courses are a reflection of this.

However, what a student should take depends on the student. A student must be careful not to overreach. Every student should take the most challenging courses he or she can perform well in. It does not help to take AP courses and get a “C.” Students who take AP must also look towards passing the AP exam.

The worst thing a student can do is take honors courses and then switch to easier courses later in their high school career in order to boost GPA. Warn your student not to catch “senioritis!”

5. What courses do colleges want to see?

There are very few situations in which the appearance or absence of any one particular class would determine a student’s college future. But, please be careful: Students do need to meet all the prerequisites of the colleges they are applying to. Some require a certain number or years of math, English, science and foreign language. And, some schools require certain math levels (such as pre-calculus) for consideration.

Overall, colleges want to see courses that tell a story. They want to see that a student has pursued his or her interests and have taken a balanced set of challenging classes.

As Yale puts it, “We encourage you to pursue your intellectual interests, so long as it is not at the expense of your program’s overall rigor or your preparedness for college.”

A few good questions from Yale for weighing course selection for the upcoming year:

  • Am I taking a well-balanced academic program that will provide me with a good foundation for college?
  • Am I prepared to take college-level math, writing, and science courses?
  • Do I feel challenged by the courses that I am taking?
  • Am I seeking challenge or avoiding it?


The fact is, admissions professionals are well-trained to identify “rigor” in the entire transcript and not just courses.

If you are a client of International College Counselors, contact one of our college advisors on what courses are most appropriate for your high school student. Other students should talk to their high school counselor.