Course Rigor: How to Make the Right Choices

Last updated Jan 11, 2024 

It’s wintertime and about halfway through the school year. So, naturally, you’re dreaming of spring break and—even better—summer vacation. However, before you enjoy either you need to focus on something much further in the future: the classes you will take next year and beyond. Now is the time when those who will be freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors in high school typically start the course selection process. Choosing the right classes is no simple task. What electives should you take? How difficult should the classes be? Do the types of classes matter to colleges as long as you fulfill graduation requirements and get good grades? Once you understand what “course rigor” is and how you can best achieve it, you will be better able to answer these questions and ultimately plan a schedule that aligns with your interests, skills, and goals. 

Defining “Course Rigor”

In simplest terms, “course rigor” is the level of difficulty of your courses; easy classes are less rigorous and hard classes are more rigorous. Colleges prefer students who challenge themselves because it demonstrates not only your skill and work ethic, but also your readiness to handle college-level coursework. Course rigor is achieved when you opt to take the honors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual-enrollment courses your school offers. High schools differ in terms of how many of these higher level courses they have, so college admissions officers consider that when evaluating whether you took full advantage of the rigorous classes available to you. 

Finding the Right Balance

So, if colleges like when applicants take rigorous courses, you should take as many AP or honors classes as you can, right? Not really. Instead, you want to balance factors like your grade level, your academic ability and goals, your personality and career interests, and your mental health. 

  • Grade Level: Generally speaking, course rigor should increase as you move up grade levels. Often underclassmen don’t have as many higher-level courses to choose from, for one. Therefore, while freshmen and sophomores should be discovering their interests and testing their limits, juniors and seniors should be focusing on challenging themselves in courses that reflect those interests. For juniors planning their senior years, be warned! You can’t slack off just because you might receive college acceptance offers as early as December of senior year. Why? Because You will need to send colleges your course schedule for senior year, and some schools will require you to send Q1 or first semester grades.
  • Academics: Whether you’re going to be starting as a freshman or graduating as a senior next year, you probably have had enough time to get a sense of your academic ability and what kind of college you want to attend. With the help of your counselor, you can use that insight to pick your classes. For example, a student who enjoys and excels at learning, with good grades, and a desire to attend a top college can and should take more rigorous courses than a student who maybe gets a few more B’s (or works harder just to get A’s) and is content attending more moderately selective schools. 
  • Personality: Although high schools have certain courses you must take to graduate, you have some freedom to choose courses that reflect your interests that also meet requirements. For example, if you are a talented writer who loves literature and is considering a career in journalism, you would benefit from honors or AP English and History classes. Choose electives wisely, too. Don’t just take one to get the credits or spend time with friends, take one that allows you to explore something you’re curious or passionate about, such as taking Oceanography if you’re a budding environmentalist.
  • Mental Health: Whenever you are choosing courses, resist the temptation to go to the extreme and overwhelm yourself with too many difficult classes. If you spread yourself too thin, your grades will not only suffer, so will your physical and mental health. Seek the advice of your family, your teachers, and your counselor if you’re anxious or uncertain about what you can handle. They can offer encouragement and guidance so you can figure out what is best for you.

Roadmaps, Detours, Resources

January and February is usually when high schools share their course offerings and require meetings with counselors to make plans. Students starting high school the following fall need to consider both what courses they want to take as freshmen and what they might want to take throughout high school, creating a rough roadmap for the next four years. It’s natural and okay to change your mind. So, have a plan but don’t be afraid to be flexible. 

Likewise, know that you have other options and resources available if you feel like you’re struggling to figure out what to do or how to do it. Counselors, parents, and even older siblings can help you chart your path. If you want more specialized support, you can also consider hiring a college admissions coach. Also, if you feel limited by the courses offered at your school, you can take classes online (e.g. AP) or at community colleges. Make sure to check with your counselor to ensure you will receive credit for those courses on your transcript before you complete them.

How A+ Can Help

When it comes to course selection, the adage that every journey begins with a single step couldn’t be more accurate; each class you take is a step closer to your goal of finishing high school and earning acceptance to college. Therefore, it’s crucial that you choose a rigorous course load that lets you explore and express your interests and that challenges you without overwhelming you. If you’re feeling lost, A+ Test Prep and Tutoring has programs and tutors that can be there to support you every step along your journey. Our college admissions coaches can help you pick classes that align with your personality and college admissions goals, and our skilled tutors can help you with your classwork or your executive function skills. 

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, we can be reached at 215-886-9188 or email us at


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