You hear it from guidance counselors, parents, and college reps: “If you want to get into your first choice college, you have to take challenging classes.” It’s true, your academic strengths and abilities as a student are best illustrated through your high school course selection and grades. The more rigorous classes you take, the more competitive you are as a college applicant. But what is considered a “rigorous” course load? How many AP classes are college admission reps really looking for? And what impresses college reps more- grades or class selection?

When reviewing an applicant’s high school transcript, college admission reps consider a variety of factors. First, they acknowledge how many academic opportunities are available to that applicant. Rural schools tend to offer fewer AP classes and comprehensive programs than suburban schools. Since Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William County public schools provide over 30 AP class electives to choose from and an assortment of specialty programs like dual enrollment and the International Baccalaureate diploma program, a course load without any AP or dual enrollment classes would not be perceived by college reps as rigorous. That’s why it’s important to take advantage of as many academic opportunities as you can.

There is rarely, if ever, a set number of AP or dual enrollment classes that guarantees acceptance into the college of your choice. Most college admission reps analyze trends over your full high school career. Rigorous classes are certainly a consideration, but the level of academic difficulty from freshman to senior year is a strong indicator of your academic success in the future. Students who take on an increasingly harder course load from year to year show growth and tenacity. College reps do take into account class selection senior year, even if grades are not available, so don’t slack off! For example, challenge yourself with a fourth year of foreign language senior year, even if you have already met the requirement for graduation. The more you can take on academically and still be successful, the higher your chances of receiving that college acceptance letter.

Of course, it can be tempting to only select class electives in the subjects you enjoy or excel in, but make sure you’re challenging yourself in all academic areas. Don’t skip out on math and science classes because they might be more difficult for you. College reps would rather see a well-rounded student than a perfect GPA. However, you do want to select AP classes based on your academic strengths. If your strongest subject is English, consider taking AP Literature, AP Language Arts, and/or AP History. If you’re stronger in math and science, enroll in AP Calculus and AP Physics. Students who perform well in rigorous high school classes are more prepared for college-level classes. The key is finding a balance between a challenging curriculum and the perfect GPA.

Finally, your career goals influence the level of classes you select in high school. If you aspire to pursue a degree in engineering at Virginia Tech, a rigorous math and science course load with calculus and physics will give you a competitive edge when applying to college. If you want to be an elementary school teacher, social sciences and fine art classes may be more applicable. Click here for a sample plan of study by career.

Before committing to a course load of five AP classes in one year (and 30 plus hours of homework and study time a week), think about which colleges you’d like to attend and research those schools. Highly selective colleges, such as Harvard, Yale, and MIT, recommend a more rigorous course load as they only accept 5-10% of students who apply each year. Larger and less selective colleges like GMU, ODU, and Radford accept 60-85% of all applicants. Since these schools are less selective, you can take fewer AP classes and still be competitive. After you’ve chosen your top colleges and researched how selective they are, you can plan your AP classes accordingly.

In summary, a rigorous high school course load is dependent on many factors. Ask yourself these questions when selecting your high school classes.

What was offered at your school compared to what did you take advantage of?
 Did you continue to challenge yourself beyond the minimum requirements for a high school diploma?
 Does your transcript show that you are a well-rounded student?
 In what subjects do you excel? Did you challenge yourself in these areas?
 What are your interests? Does your coursework show that you can be successful in a particular major?
 How selective is your dream school?

For advice on which AP classes and how many you should take junior and senior year, click here to schedule a phone consultation.