College Admissions Advisors Answer Questions on “Rigor” for High School Students

College admissions advisors often recommend that students take the most ‘rigorous’ course load possible. But what do terms like “rigorous course load” mean and how rigorous should a student’s schedule be?  The expert college advisors at International College Counselors answered some answers to these elusive questions.

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.

“As greater numbers of students are challenging themselves by engaging in rigorous, college-level AP and IB course work in high school, colleges raise their standards.  Students need to stay on top of recruiting trends in order to be competitive,” said Mandee Heller Adler, founder of International College Counselors.

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, know that colleges are aware of different situations that may restrict what courses can be taken. What they really expect that students excel in the opportunities to which they do have access.

However, students should be aware that they can take AP classes online.  Colleges know this too.

Another option is to enroll in classes at a nearby college or take online learning courses to supplement your regular high school work.  You can even earn college credit at the same time.

3. Which are better IB classes or AP classes?

IB stands for International Baccalaureate which is an advanced high school diploma program. AP stands for Advanced Placement.  In the IB program, students who pass six exams can sometimes enter college as a sophomore.  (Note: check with each school because policies differ).  Both curriculums have merit. One is not 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 answers 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.  What a student must be careful to do is not 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.  A warning to students:  Do not 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 prerequisite of the colleges they are applying to.  Some require a certain number or years of math, English 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 your 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.

This year, college advisors at International College Counselors helped more than 200 students find, apply to and gain acceptance into the college of their dreams.  The expert college counselors at International College Counselors are dedicated to helping students and their families successfully navigate the college application process.

For more information on International College Counselors or to contact an expert college counselor, please visit


International College Counselors provides expert college counseling on undergraduate and graduate college admissions, financial aid, tuition, essays, and college applications to domestic and international students.

The college counseling and college coaching services are tailored to address the goals, needs, and dreams of each student. Mandee Heller Adler, founder of International College Counselors, is a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and also received an MBA from Harvard Business School. International College Counselors’ achievements include being recognized as one of South Florida’s Top 100 Small Businesses in 2012.

International College Counselors has offices in New York, New York; White Plains, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; Miami Beach, Florida; Miami, Florida; Coral Gables, Florida; Palm Beach, Florida; Boca Raton, Florida; Medellin, Colombia and Caracas, Venezuela.

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Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33312 USA
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