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What Does a Rigorous High School Schedule Look Like?

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We at CollegeVine frequently use the term “rigorous” to describe course loads and course schedules. That’s because rigorous studies in high school are something that admissions committees look for specifically during the application process. They want to know that applicants are capable of difficult, college-level work.  


It’s not surprising then that we often hear from students asking, “How can I make sure my course load is challenging or rigorous enough?” If you’re wondering how to assess if your classes are up to snuff and how to choose a course load that’s challenging without being overwhelming, this post is for you.


What Does Rigorous Mean?

Rigorous is a vague term, but it can be more helpful to think of your course load as it compares to the course loads of other students at your high school. Admissions committees understand that not all high schools offer a full suite of challenging course options. While some have dozens of AP classes or an IB program to choose from, others have only college placement or honors tracks available.


Luckily, you don’t need to worry too much about how many options are available at your high school, since this is out of your control. Instead, you need to focus on choosing the most challenging options available to you. You can think of a rigorous course load as the one that represents the most challenging track available at your high school.


To learn more about how your classes will impact your college applications, check out our post Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?.


How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed

Being the most challenging track available, a rigorous course load can sometimes be a little overwhelming, especially at first. You should start by easing into a challenging course load. During ninth grade, select classes that are rigorous enough to challenge you, but not enough so as to overwhelm you. Think of 9th grade as a time to test the waters and see what you’re capable of. Remember, it is always easier and looks better to add another class or transfer to a more challenging section than it is to drop a class or move down to a less challenging one.  


In addition, balance your course selections with reasonable extracurricular commitments. Focusing on two or three extracurriculars is ultimately enough, especially if you stick with them consistently and work your way up to leadership positions or increased responsibility. Dropping an extracurricular after 9th or 10th grade is no big deal if doing so means that you can keep your grades up and take on more challenging classes.

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What to Choose? More Classes or More Challenging Classes?

Admissions committees generally want to see well-rounded students insofar as having completed four years of coursework in each core subject area. This includes English, history, math, science, and usually a foreign language. In fact, many colleges require that applicants have completed four years of coursework in each of these subject areas just to meet application prerequisites.


In these core subject areas, you should strive to take the most challenging courses that you’re capable of doing well in, and your primary focus in studying and achieving should be in these core subject areas. Taking any additional classes is not necessary, but it does represent an opportunity.  


Beyond the core subject areas, any elective classes that you take should reflect your interests. This is an opportunity to reinforce any potential career choices or college majors. Rather than worrying about taking especially challenging electives, think of them as a chance to explore and demonstrate your interests. Taking electives shows intellectual curiosity and might even allow you to discover a new interest.


Better Grades or Harder Classes?

The balance between better grades and harder classes is always a delicate one. We hear from many students wanting to know if they should take a harder class and get a B, or an easier one and get an A.


While there’s no universal answer that will impress every admissions committee, it’s important to know that admissions committees aren’t interested in easy A’s. In fact, a 4.0 GPA in regular college-placement classes may actually be a deterrent to some admissions committees who are looking for students who want to challenge themselves.


In general, a good rule of thumb is that if you think you can achieve a B or higher in it, take the more difficult class. Admissions committees will appreciate that you have worked hard for that B, rather than pursuing a less rigorous track.


What Classes Should You Take For a Rigorous Course Schedule?

Planning a rigorous track starts in 9th grade. To get off on the right foot, you should make a four-year plan. The simplest way to do this is by using backward design. Start with 12th grade—what classes do you need to be taking in 12th grade in order to get into the types of colleges you hope to attend? These classes are generally the highest level courses available at your school. They might be AP or IB classes if your school offers them, or they could simply be honors level classes if that’s all your school has available.


Work backwards from 12th grade to ensure that your prerequisites are met each year. It is much easier to work backwards incrementally from your final 12th grade goal than it is to start with your ninth grade classes and try to imagine where they’ll take you.


It’s a good idea to meet with a guidance counselor as you create your four-year plan. You’ll want to ensure that you’re meeting all graduation requirements and that it represents a course schedule that is rigorous as compared to others available at your school. Your guidance counselor will be able to lend some insight into which paths are commonly taken by students with the same goals as you.


In addition, remember that the classes you enroll in aren’t the only way to impress admissions committees. You can also highlight your academic chops through options like independent studies, summer college courses, or online coursework. To learn more about these options, check out our post What To Do If Your High School Doesn’t Offer AP Classes.


For more about course selection, don’t miss these CollegeVine posts:

How to Pick Your High School Courses Freshman and Sophomore Years

Your Guide to Sophomore Year Course Selection

How to Choose Classes for Your Junior Year of High School

Decisions, Decisions: Choosing Classes as a High-School Senior


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.