How Colleges View Course Rigor

How Colleges View Course Rigor

Folks, February has arrived. Many schools are allowing students to start their course selection for the next school year. Let us walk you through how college admissions view course rigor and how it pertains to weighted coursework.

Factors to Consider

Factor #1: Where does the student go to high school?

Colleges look at the high school you attended in order to gain a better understanding of the courses available to you. They then compare you to people with similar scenarios. It is crucial to remember that colleges generally compare you to your classmates at the same high school–not others. While private universities offer some flexibility, they are still known to compare individuals from schools with similar socioeconomic demographics and similar course availability.

Now remember, this does not mean you should attend another school nearby because they offer more AP’s. This is a myth. There is no beneficial impact as students would continue to be compared to their immediate peer group. It also does not mean students should self-study for AP’s outside of what’s offered in hope of looking better when compared to their peers. Self-studying for AP exams in that manner is often perceived as manipulative, try-hard, and contrived to look good for college rather than a genuine attempt to learn. Moreover, colleges measure students’ coursework and performance based on the curriculum offered and the grades earned, not the AP exam scores. Self-studying for AP’s does not factor in the same way as grades do in the evaluation process. In fact, they aren’t even close. You can read more about the value of APs and AP testing here

Factor #2: What courses did the student take?

Colleges will look to see how much a student has challenged themselves in comparison to the courses available to them. They expect students to find a balance challenging themselves without overstepping and over challenging themselves. The expectation between students and families seems to be to take every possible AP and Honors course available, however, this is NOT the case. Expectations for weighted coursework change depending on the rigor of the university. The more rigorous a university is, the greater its expectation is for weighted coursework as they look to find students who have already proven they can excel under a rigorous course load. 

Pro-Tip: Take 2-4 weighted classes at any given time

This is highly recommended at least for those attending school in affluent neighborhoods with plenty of weighted course options. This is enough to open up virtually all college doors, so long as you do well in them. 

Factor #3: How did the student do?

With many students focused on the amount of weighted coursework they take, they undermine the importance of the grades they receive. Colleges will always look and emphasize a students’ grades. For this reason, Unweighted GPA is arguably considered the most important number in college admissions as it purely demonstrates a student’s performance in their classes without taking into consideration the rigor of course. Taking weighted courses only makes students look good for college if they earn A’s in those courses, NOT if they struggle. So students, remember to choose courses that you are confident will not overwhelm/over challenge yourself and will allow you to get A’s or close to it. Make sure to also ace your finals as they often heavily impact grades. 

In-addition, do not fall victim to the myth that getting a B in an AP class is similar to getting an A in a non-weighted class. Getting a B in an AP class is getting a B in an AP class. End of story. Getting good grades (A) should always be your first priority. 

Bonus Factor: What additional context may affect the student’s academic performance?

In some cases, the grades and course load will not tell a student’s whole story. Life happens unexpectedly. It could be a bad fever during finals week or a passing of a loved one in the middle of Junior year. Colleges are open and willing to hear you out as long as you show a positive grade trajectory after the incident.

Family background is another factor that can play a vital role in college admissions. For example, if you are the first in your immediate family to go to college, that can put (sub)standard grades or lack of weighted coursework into perspective. Be open to sharing this sort of information as most colleges take it into consideration.

Pro-tip: Having a hard teacher almost always doesn’t count as valid context.


  1. Where does the student go to high school?
  2. What courses did the student take?
  3. How did the student do?
  4. What additional context may affect the student’s academic performance?

We hope that this provides some valuable insight into how to release some of the stress you may have while making your college application profile even stronger.

We specialize in youth mentorship and college counseling. From 8th grade to 12th, we have you covered for any stage in your high school career. Schedule a free consultation with us here.

We are always posting more helpful tips and tricks to help reduce the stress of college application season. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn

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