Colleges will look closely at the level of rigor a student has in their schedule.  What does “rigor” really mean? Honestly, something different for each student.  Rigorous courses are meant to challenge the student; colleges want to see that a student has appropriately challenged herself.

Choosing rigor can start as early as eighth grade when many students have the opportunity to jump start high school by taking high school courses for credit.  If a student is ready for that level of work, go for it! Keep in mind, grades earned in these courses will in most cases impact the high school GPA and class rank which eventually will be of paramount importance for college application.

Once in high school, students have a choice on what “level” of a course to take. College prep, accelerated, honors, dual enrollment or AP are among the choice in increasing level of rigor. This is where there really is not one right fit.  While a student may be honors or even AP material in math for instance, he may never be ready for anything beyond college prep in English.  That is okay.  Do not feel pressured to take on more than you can handle. Getting in over your head can result in lower grades and a stressed out year.  It’s not worth it.

Are you ready for more “rigor”?

If a student is getting straight A’s in college prep classes, the admissions’ team will be left wondering why the student didn’t throw in an honors class or two to challenge herself.  In many cases, the college would rather see a student earn a B in a more challenging weighted course or two than straight A’s in less challenging courses. Just ask on your college visits.

For juniors or seniors toying with taking AP courses, it can feel like jumping off into the deep end wondering if you can thrive or survive. There are several indicators considered in making the right decision.  First is your current teacher’s recommendation.  Ask her if you are AP material.  Your teacher sees who you are everyday as a student and should know the expectations of the AP courses in her department. In 2009, ACT Research released results of a study that provided PLAN (the little sister to the ACT) score benchmarks for potential success in AP courses. Finally, if in addition to the PLAN test you’ve taken the PSAT, Collegeboard identifies for your school students with AP potential.  Just ask if you were identified or read the 2006 report here on Collegeboard.

In the end, do what right for YOU and your educational goals.  It is the rare student who can take 4 AP courses and not be part of the 56% identified as being “in over their heads” in a 2009 Thomas Fordham Institute study. Balance is what you’re striving for.