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College Application: What is "rigor"? Do I have enough "rigor"?


During every college admissions presentation the admissions officer will state that a successful candidate's transcript will reflect academic rigor throughout high school. Hoping to shed a little more light on the subject a parent or student will ask, “would you prefer a candidate that took AP Physics C and received a B or Honors Physics and aced it?" The answer is usually something along the lines of the college wants students successfully completing the most rigorous course load available that is appropriate for that student. Of course, that answer provides little real guidance and seems to be hiding the ball. However, the truth is that colleges like to see students challenging themselves. So a more direct answer is: A ‘B’ in an honors course is better than an ‘A’ in a regular course. A ‘B’ in an AP course is better than an ‘A’ in a honors course. Colleges are looking for students who push themselves, are

intellectually curious and are interested in learning.


The term rigor used in the academic setting refers to courses that are academically, intellectually, and personally challenging.  If you start with that definition as your guidepost you easily arrive at the conclusion that what is rigorous for one student may not be for another.  You may ask why academic “rigor” is an important element for college applicants.  Several years ago the Duke Gifted Letter interviewed several admissions officers from leading universities to find out what they were looking for in their applicants.  Invariably all those polled wanted to see evidence of academic rigor in the student’s transcript.  The need for rigor in high school was explained by the representative from Davidson College as follows: the purpose of choosing challenging courses in high school is not to help you get into college but to help you once you arrive on campus. The more challenge students encounter in their high school curriculum, the more prepared they are to deal with the rigors of higher education.  The admissions representative from Northwestern gave a clearer picture of their expectations: one of our first expectations is that students are in the AP courses; we note negatively when a student seems to be dodging most of the tougher courses, even with A's .


In considering rigor as an element of a successful college application you must understand how a school will be reviewing its applicants.  The leading universities do a holistic review of the applicant’s academic record in order to determine if that student challenged themselves in high school and their level of success.  However, a student is only evaluated on the courses that were available in their high school.  There is no set expectation as to a certain number of AP/IB courses.  The student’s transcript is accompanied by a secondary school report  providing information about the student’s high school including the number and type of AP/IB courses available and the grading scale. This provides the framework for admissions to evaluate that student. Many AP/IB courses have prerequisites, so if a student wants to avail themselves of the most rigorous courses available it will require some planning starting as early as 8th grade.

Further, while a student's  application is reviewed individually it is not done in a vacuum. Applicants are part of a pool of candidates which may contain 4,000 to 10,000 applicants for each school to which you apply.  Your high school academic record is being assessed in relationship to the pool of candidates that school receives.  Therefore, if you are applying to very selective schools you can anticipate that your competition have transcripts that reflect a high degree of rigor and academic success. 


A student’s academic rigor will depend on the courses available in their high school, their academic ability and interest, the types of colleges and the selectiveness of the colleges to which they expect to apply. Ultimately, course selection in high school is going to be different for every student but here are some questions students should ask themselves when selecting their courses:

• 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 Essential College Coaches can guide you through course selection to maximize your college admissions potential. 


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