APs, Honors, International Baccalaureate (IB): How Important is a “Rigorous” Academic Course Load?

I advise my students to take rigorous courses, the hardest classes they can successfully shoulder – but what does “hardest” mean in practice? Here are a few examples:


One of my recently-onboarded juniors was anxious because his school doesn’t provide grades. How will colleges know what a good student he is? My response was twofold: all schools have “grades” but not all report in traditional letters (A-F) or numbers (1-100). Therefore, as long as he’s taking the most difficult classes in the subjects he likes and/or excels in, there’s no need to worry. Schools that assess student performance and participation with anecdotes or written reports are usually granular in their in-depth student write-ups, enabling colleges to discern how well a particular student is grasping the material and interacting with classmates. As long as a student is challenging themselves by taking robust courses that reflect their ability, admissions teams will recognize that the student is college-ready!

Course Selection

Highlighting classes that are in alignment with a student’s interests reflects an important aspect of my coaching philosophy. Maybe a rigorous, high-level English class will distract a potential physics major from doing their best in AP Physics and AP Calc BC. A transcript that reveals high grades in one area can be helpful when shaping a student’s “brand narrative.” As a former marketing professional, I’m careful to not pigeonhole students into any one academic major or program, especially those students who have many passions versus just one. However, if I notice that by taking certain classes a student could deepen their knowledge base in a specific field, and thereby make themselves more attractive to a college, I’ll make suggestions.


Even if a student is taking numerous APs or Honors classes, or enrolled in their school’s IB program, they can still get a bad grade(s), have a bumpy year (or two), and wind up with a lower GPA or written reports than they anticipated. “I should’ve taken easier classes,” a student in this position once said to me. “My GPA tanked this past year.” Counselor reports and teacher recommendations can be godsends in this situation. An advisor or faculty member who knows the student’s capabilities can explain situations that amplify the student’s strengths and ambitions while deemphasizing the transcript blips.

Taking rigorous classes just to take rigorous classes doesn’t always yield desired results. Mindful assessment of a student’s interests and identifying where they seem the most academically engaged is an important aspect of how I coach.

For more information about College Counseling/Essay Coaching, please drop me a line at Elizabeth@eecollegecoach.com or give me a holler at 917-863-2424. Also, for “news you can use,” please check out my blog, videos, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And Happy Holidays to All!