The Importance of Rigor

This post on the importance of rigor in choosing high school classes is one of the few on this blog directed to all high school students, from freshmen to seniors – and their parents. 

Many students choose their class schedules on autopilot. They pencil in the next courses in their Math, English, and Foreign Language sequences, add in a Science and a History course, and, perhaps, choose an elective which looks interesting (or at least tolerable). 

The entire exercise may not take very much time, but it can have huge repercussions for college admissions. College admissions officers will take a very close look at your schedule. Many will be looking for what courses you took before they even consider the grades you received in them. 

The term “rigor” describes the difficulty of your course schedule; it is a critical part of your college admissions strategy. 

Colleges Use Rigor to Place Your GPA in Context

In the old days, a 4.0 GPA in high school was a rarity. It is now commonplace, with 40-50% of college applicants sporting a (weighted) A average. How are colleges to determine which students are most likely to excel in college?  Although standardized test scores can provide confirmation of potential, they are falling out of favor as many colleges adopt “test optional” policies. 

The best predictor of success in college is performance in difficult high school courses. “Difficult” is shorthand for AP courses, some courses designated by the school as “Honors,” and dual enrollment courses at a community college. (An international baccalaureate – “IB” – diploma also counts.) 

The most common coin of the realm in measuring rigor is the number of AP courses on a transcript. However, not all AP courses are considered equal. 

We start with the “apex predator” of AP courses:  Calculus (either AB or BC, but with a marked preference for the latter for STEM students.)  I can hear you scream now:  “[b]ut I am going to major in English!  I will never need Calculus.”  Alas, it matters not – for reasons that are hard for this onetime history major to fathom, an increasing number of colleges appear to be using Calculus as a proxy for ability to succeed in any college program. A recent book includes an astonishing statistic: 

Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses are one way top colleges measure the quality of a high school. AP Calculus, in particular, has become the strongest signal of preparedness for an elite college. Eight in 10 college students who completed AP Calculus did so because they thought it would look good on their college application. In 2019, 67 percent of freshmen at Harvard reported they took AP Calculus in high school, and another 30 percent took some kind of calculus class. That’s all first-year students at Harvard, no matter their major.

Selingo, Jeffrey J., Who Gets in and Why:  A Year Inside College Admissions, Scribner, 2020 (Kindle Edition), at 168 (emphasis in bold).

Of course, most students are not planning to attend Harvard. And, as we will discuss below, the selectivity of a college will usually determine the degree of rigor necessary for admission. Similarly, flinging yourself into Calculus and emerging with a “D” will have the opposite effect you desire – in order to obtain credit for a rigorous course, you need to do well in it. 

Nevertheless, if you are reasonably sure that you can swing a “B” in either Calculus AB or BC, no matter your future plans, you should take it. The alternative, AP Statistics, is considered an also-ran. It is widely labeled as much less rigorous, despite the fact that far more professionals – at least outside engineering and mathematics – will use Statistics than Calculus. Even so, AP Statistics is better than no AP math course.

The remainder of the hierarchy is less settled, but here is mine, in order of descending rigor:  for English, AP English Literature and Composition, followed by AP English Language and Composition. For Social Sciences, U.S. History and European History, with AP U.S. Government, AP Comparative Government, and Macroeconomics/Microeconomics considered worthy. For Science, any of the trinity of AP courses – Biology, Chemistry, and Physics C (either of the two exams), will do the job. 

There are niche APs that matter, such as Foreign Languages (particularly if your name does not indicate that you are a heritage speaker) and Fine Arts.

The next tier of courses are Honors courses, followed by regular courses. 

Your Transcript Tells a Story

When evaluating your transcript, colleges look for:

  • An increase in difficulty from freshman to senior year. 
  • A commitment to learning in many areas. Colleges want you to keep taking those Big 5 (English, History, Math, Science, Foreign Language) for all four years.
  • An absence of “weak spots.”  Did you terminate a sequence (i.e., stop taking a subject)?

There are certain groups of courses, call them “sequences,” which colleges expect students to complete. Many of these are obvious – if your school offers English 1, 2, 3, and 4, colleges will be put off if you do not take all four. Similarly, if there is a math sequence (e.g., Algebra, Geometry, Precalculus, Calculus), then colleges will notice if you stop early. A quick rule of thumb is that you should continue taking all sequences for your freshman, sophomore, and junior years; seniors who are not aiming for top colleges may have some leeway to “step down” from a sequence.

The More Selective the College, the More Important Your Story

As you look at more selective colleges, their expectations increase.

Colleges tend to be up front about what they are looking for. Visit their websites, click on admissions, and you will find an announcement similar to this statement from the University of Colorado, Boulder: 

Academic Rigor

The primary factor in admission decisions is your academic achievement. CU Boulder focuses on your classroom performance in core academic courses, the rigor of your course selection and your GPA.

You will notice a glancing mention of rigor. Indeed, on the same page you will see that CU Boulder ranks GPA above rigor in its admissions decisions. Id.

More selective colleges tend to emphasize rigor and GPA equally. Consider this excerpt from Emory University’s website:

Academic Preparation

The classes you take and the grades you receive in them matter. We typically look for students who’ve taken more challenging classes (which can vary from high school to high school, and we take that into account, too) and have done well in them.

Other colleges are more explicit – and demanding – in their expectations of rigor. Here is Barnard’s exhortation:

To be well-prepared for Barnard, it is important to think about the academic community you are hoping to join. Barnard’s general education requirements cover a wide range of subjects: literature, the social sciences, language and the arts, lab sciences, and quantitative areas. For this reason, you should acquire a strong foundation in high school, taking courses from the core academic subjects: math, science, English, history, and foreign language. Do your best to take the most rigorous classes available to you in which you can do your best work. If an area is a relative weakness, continue taking that subject while pursuing advanced coursework in areas of relative strength. Remember, we hope to see how you might contribute to our intellectual community, and your choices tell us what kind of a student you will be. (emphasis added in bold).

The bolded sentence represents another expectation shared by many colleges – that students will continue taking courses in their weak subjects. 

Finally, there is the massive edifice of higher education known as the University of California, right on the edge of the top-25 group of colleges. It publishes a daunting list of factors it considers in making admission decisions:

How applications are reviewed

As we consider each individual application – and rest assured, we do consider each one – we look beyond grades. We spend time evaluating your academic achievements in light of the opportunities available to you and your demonstrated capacity to contribute to the intellectual life at UC. Some factors we may consider are:

1. Academic grade point average in all completed A-G courses, including additional points for completed UC-certified honors courses. [Ed. These are core subjects, including Fine Arts.]

2. Number of, content of and performance in academic courses beyond the minimum A-G requirements.

3. Number of and performance in UC-approved honors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate Higher Level and transferable college courses.

4. Identification by UC as ranking in the top 9 percent of the student’s high school class [Ed. This is used only for in-state admission, and is not related to the rigor of the student’s course schedule.]

5. Quality of your senior-year program as measured by the type and number of academic courses in progress or planned.

6. Quality of your academic performance relative to the educational opportunities available in your high school.

7. Outstanding performance in one or more specific subject areas.

8. Outstanding work in one or more special projects in any academic field of study.

9. Recent, marked improvement in academic performance as demonstrated by academic GPA and the quality of coursework completed or in progress.

10. Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student’s promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus.

11. Completion of special projects undertaken in the context of your high school curriculum or in conjunction with special school events, projects or programs.

12. Academic accomplishments in light of your life experiences and special circumstances, including but not limited to: disabilities, low family income, first generation to attend college, need to work, disadvantaged social or educational environment, difficult personal and family situations or circumstances, refugee status or veteran status.

13. Location of your secondary school and residence. (Emphasis in bold.)

Paragraph 5 is a criterion which other colleges rarely state, at least explicitly:  the rigor of the student’s senior year schedule.

In sum, rigor means different things to colleges, depending upon their selectivity. You have more leeway to make compromises on rigor if your colleges are less, well, rigorous in their admissions decisions.

Let’s start with the freshman year. 


Start with a realistic self-assessment of your academic strengths and weaknesses, largely based on your performance in middle school. However, given that many colleges give less weight to your freshman grades in high school, consider attempting a tough course in a subject at the outset to determine whether you can handle harder courses in that same subject during your next three years. 

Math is where you have the most flexibility; it is also the subject where choosing where you start your sequence will probably dictate whether you are in a position to take Calculus in your senior year. Study your school’s Math sequence. Some schools have a five-course math sequence (Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Precalculus/Trig, and Calculus AB); you will only be able to take Calculus AB, much less Calculus BC, by taking part of the sequence in summer school or online. 

Work backwards from your expected terminus – usually Calculus (AB or BC), Statistics, or Precalculus. If you are not going to take Calculus, note that ending your senior year with AP Statistics is more impressive than taking the non-AP version; if you can hold your own with a “B,” colleges will never see your AP test score before making their admissions decision. 

Choosing rigor often comes down to choosing between a regular and an Honors course. Again, you may wish to take a calculated risk. Math and Science are the riskiest subjects in which to attempt a harder course – but also the area of greatest reward. 

Evaluate your entire schedule when making these decisions. You may be able to handle one or two Honors courses, but not five. 

If you start off the semester struggling in a course, consider transferring to a lower track in the next semester if your efforts do not yield at least a “B.” 

The College Board does not recommend that 9th graders take AP exams, but a few do, typically corresponding with a course they are taking ahead of schedule (e.g., AP Biology), or a Social Science (AP Psychology, AP World History, or AP Human Geography). There is no penalty for taking one, as you can decide not to report that exam result. However, if you are the kind of student who is traumatized by a bad exam result, then you might want to wait until 10th grade.


This is the first year that the College Board recommends that students attempt AP courses and exams. The usual candidates are the courses listed above. Some students may self-study and take AP Computer Science. Try to take at least one AP course, if only to become familiar with the format, and identify whether you are suited for this sort of exam. 

Caution:  never risk your GPA to take an extra AP course. Colleges want to see high grades more than another couple of AP exams. 

While there is no minimum number of APs, expect to see diminishing returns after 6-8 exams for the most selective schools (unless you are consistently scoring 5s on them); less selective schools will be sufficiently impressed by you taking (and passing) 2-4 of them. An exception may be the largest public universities. Note that the University of California appears to be counting:

Number of and performance in UC-approved honors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate Higher Level and transferable college courses. (Paragraph 3).

Even so, you have your junior and senior years available to take some of these APs. 

Finally, remember that academics is not the only thing colleges will look at. Reserve time for extra-curricular activities. 


Assuming your course sequences are working out, stick with them. If you still have extra time,  look into dual enrollment courses (where you take courses at a community college), or even self-studying online. Or you can work on your extra-curricular activities. If you have a talent for the fine arts, definitely participate in an extracurricular activity which improves that skill. 

This is the year to take AP classes. Try for 2-4 of them this year; a dual enrollment course counts as an AP exam (and in some cases is actually a bit better, as it is direct evidence of how well you will perform in a college class).  

However, AP courses may be the least of your problems. You may feel it necessary to keep your GPA up by no longer pursuing a tough sequence you have been following until now. If you detest Science, you may be tempted to avoid the third course in your Biology/Chemistry/Physics sequence in favor of a science course which looks impressive in the course catalog. (Colleges are wise to this – none of those are considered as highly as the Bio/Chem/Physics sequence.)  Students struggling with math may decide that it is time to avoid Precalculus, and plan on taking Statistics in senior year instead.

Colleges will always notice if you break a sequence, and it will always count against you. However, the penalty will vary depending upon the selectivity of your target schools. Again, it is always worth taking the penalty if the alternative is earning less than a “B.”

As we will discuss shortly, the penalty will be lower if you wait until senior year to step down from a sequence.  


This is the most difficult time to choose a schedule. You are devoting hours to your college search — reviewing guidebooks, visiting campuses, and composing essays. You may have just finished an exhausting junior year, and are less motivated to sign up for more of the same. 

Seniors are often confronted with the most difficult courses in the sequences they have been taking. Calculus is a huge step up from Pre-Calculus. The fourth year of a foreign language requires greater speaking skills, as classes are often conducted in that language.   

Fears that continuing on these uphill climbs will have implications for your GPA are reasonable. Of course, your peers have not transformed into geniuses over summer break – if you held your own last year, you can probably do it again.

In any event, colleges expect you to take difficult courses in your senior year. Remember the criterion from the University of California discussion of rigor quoted above: 

5.  Quality of your senior-year program as measured by the type and number of academic courses in progress or planned.

This includes AP courses. One piece of good news is that your score on the AP exam will not be considered – colleges announce admission decisions before you sit for those exams.

Colleges are likely to consider your seventh semester grades. Yes, you can apply Early Decision or Early Action, and hope that an early decision date mean that the admissions decision will be made before your seventh semester grades are available. However, this may not work – colleges are increasingly deferring those students into the regular decision pool for further consideration. Colleges will then demand your seventh-semester grades.

More important purposes of this discussion, colleges will see your senior year schedule – most college applications require you to disclose it. 

This is usually the year where you must decide what tier of colleges you are aiming for. The top-50 ranked colleges will expect you to keep taking the most rigorous courses available. But the others will be more forgiving. Here are some ideas of what liberties you can take with those less selective colleges without sustaining a fatal blow to your admissions chances. 

Remember Barnard’s injunction? 

If an area is a relative weakness, continue taking that subject while pursuing advanced coursework in areas of relative strength.

Note that Barnard only asks that you continue taking each subject, not that you keep taking the hardest sequence available. And, for this discussion, you are not applying to Barnard or any other top-50 colleges, are you? 

If you are going to step off a sequence during your senior year, sacrifice those harder courses in roughly this order:

Fine Arts.  One year is enough. However, if you are applying to the University of California from out-of-state, make sure that you study the rules on what high school courses satisfy their (“f”) requirement. The most obvious oddity is that two semesters of fine arts only count if they are both in the same subject. See; see also (a more detailed and useful guide, but do check with the UC to verify).

Indeed, unless you have a plain vanilla transcript, such as Painting 1 and Painting 2, consider calling the UC school of your choice and asking before you finalize your schedule. Even the best private school counselors can get this wrong (I’ve seen it), so go to the source. 

Foreign Language.  Three years is usually enough. However, if you are a strong foreign language student, then you should consider doubling down by taking an AP level course in the language and the culture within which it is spoken (e.g., AP Spanish Language and Culture). You can then pitch yourself to colleges as a potential foreign language major. (You can step down elsewhere in your schedule.) 

At least the University of California will give you credit for your foreign language skills:

10. Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student’s promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus. (Emphasis in bold.)

Another bonus:  if you do well on the AP exam, you will likely fulfill the 2-4 semester foreign language requirement imposed by many liberal arts colleges.

Math.  If it is obvious from your transcript that you are not a STEM student and that you do poorly in math, consider conceding gracefully by taking an easy math course. Note:  do the work and get an “A” or “B” in the course. 

Science.  Yes, you can take one of those fine-sounding science courses (astronomy, earth sciences, environmental science) instead of AP Bio, AP Chem, or AP Physics. This assumes, of course, that you are not applying as a STEM student.

Social Studies.  There is not really a “sequence” here, but you should take a fourth year in this subject. Note that Economics is far from a “step down” course, and may appeal to those who are more interested in STEM. 

English.  You must take four years of English. If you are “stepping down,” best to take a writing course – colleges are always looking for writers.

You will suffer a significant penalty if you take a lot of electives in your senior year. If you must do so, make the case that those electives will prepare you for your intended college major and future career. 

Courses in communicative media such as Film Production and Photography can prepare you for majors in Communication and careers in the movie business and advertising/public relations. Creative Writing is a lot more useful to would-be journalists and marketing executives than analyzing British literature. Your essays should celebrate your choices, which will be evident to colleges in any event. 

Be rigorous – but not too rigorous

Remember that you are looking for the “best fit” college. Self-assessment of your academic strengths and weaknesses is your path to arriving at a college where you will thrive. Take the hardest courses you can handle, but make smart compromises when necessary to save your GPA. 

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