College Applications: GPA or Academic Rigor?


by Zena Smith

For the last several months college-bound seniors have been diligently at work, piecing together the most convincing college applications they can. As they add their final touches and prepare to send them off, now is the time that underclassmen (sophomores and juniors) should start thinking about how they’ll handle the same process in the years to come.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, college admissions officers weigh the many merits of an application heavily as they consider who to accept, who to wait list, and who to ultimately reject. And frankly, they’ve got a lot to consider. Today’s college applications are much more than simple paper work; they’re multi-faceted profiles that tell a big story about each applicant. With so many parts, it often feels like any one of them can make or break a good application. So it makes sense that students give their all to make positive impressions in each key category:

It’s normal to strive for perfection on all facets of a college application. That’s why students and parents come up confused when perfection in one category comes at the expense of mediocrity in another. Most often, this happens when students are chasing two hard-to-achieve application standards at once:

  • GPA (Grade Point Average)
  • Rigor of Schedule

It is true that college admissions offices consider both the grades a student has earned and the difficulty of the classes they’ve taken in measuring college readiness and potential. But anyone who has ever been through the process knows that it is far from easy, and not always possible, to be best in both categories. Many students, especially those with busy schedules, must choose between a 4.0 GPA on a light schedule and sacrificing a few decimal points while taking more challenging and impressive coursework such as AP classes.

acceptedOkay, so what do college admissions offices value more—good grades, or tough classes? That’s a good question, and the answer is a little of both. It may sound obvious, but you want to find a combination that allows your student to perform well in both categories. In other words, you don’t want to max out your GPA if your class schedule must be laughably easy to do so. And on the other hand, no student should load up their schedule with Advanced Placement coursework at the cost of a bunch of Cs and Ds on their report card. It’s about finding a balance. Doing “well” in both categories will almost always leave a better impression than doing perfectly in one category and dismally in the other.

Keep in mind, admissions officers are smart people who have had a lot of practice reviewing college applications and interpreting the stories they tell. If your student earns the title of valedictorian, but only by taking basic math classes and padding their schedule with multiple gym classes, an admissions officer may get the impression that they avoid challenges or care more about appearances than actual learning. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a student who takes four AP courses per semester, but turns in a 2.0 GPA, may come across as unprepared for college-level work and out of touch with their own abilities. In both cases, a more desirable applicant would be the one who boasts a medium-high GPA that was earned through challenging coursework. The trick is really to find that sweet spot.

All that said , never be afraid to “go for the gold” if you and your student feel that they are capable. If it seems that taking an(other) AP-level course might be the difference between getting into the school of their dreams and getting an unwelcome rejection letter, by all means, sign them up! Remember, you can always get a little extra help if you need it—either from a teacher or from an AP tutoring service. And even if your student just misses the grade they desire, it may not be a deal breaker for their application. In fact, their extra effort might turn out to be the sign of character and work ethic that gets them admitted to their school of choice.



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