What is Academic Rigor and Why is it So Important?

Simply put, rigor is the academic or intellectual challenge of a class. The more difficult the class, the more rigorous it is. More often than not, academic rigor does not refer to a single class, but a number of them within a student’s schedule. Rigor is more than just “how difficult a class is” however, and even more than “how hard a student has to work to earn a good grade.” In essence, a rigorous class prepares the student by teaching them (and having them exercise) skills useful in school, the business world, and in life.

There are multiple reasons that “academic rigor” might make a student shy away. Maybe you’d rather take easier classes you know you can ace to improve your GPA and class rank. Maybe the subject matter is intimidating. Maybe you’ve heard horror stories of harsh grading requirements and heavy reading. Instead of looking at a rigorous schedule with dread, think of it as a challenge.

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Why is it important?

Colleges will not be impressed with the bare minimum. The average will not wow them. This is where academic rigor comes in. They want to see you pushing yourself. They want to see you stepping out of your comfort zone and working hard to accomplish good grades. College coursework will be more difficult and demanding than high school, so proving that you can handle tougher material ensures colleges that you will work just as hard while attending their own classes.

What is better to have–academic rigor or a high GPA?

Well, the ideal answer is both. The more realistic answer is a balance between the two. Many students think that their GPA is one of the single most important factors–along with ACT/SAT scores–that will determine their acceptance to a college. While GPA is definitely important, rigor matters too. Colleges will take into account the types of classes you’re taking. A 3.8 GPA one semester with standard classes is impressive, but so is a 3.4 GPA with two or three advanced placement (AP) courses in the schedule.

What kind of classes are considered rigorous?

AP classes are perhaps the most well-known source of rigor. AP takes the material and requirements up a few notches from the mandatory core classes. With students learning more, producing research-based projects, reading more in-depth, and taking harder tests it is a shining example of academic rigor.

However, there are other ways to include rigor in a schedule. Dual-enrollment classes are college-level courses that often translate into college credit hours upon completion. Not only do they show rigor, but they also help with your overall credit hour requirement in the long run–win-win!

Another source of rigor is IB classes. International Baccalaureate classes are becoming increasingly popular in America. Some confuse AP and IB courses, but IB programs can be started as early as elementary school. There are varying levels of IB classes available in high school, all of which end with a test and a certificate. IB takes a different approach to standardized learning and allows students to think critically.

Is it more rigorous to take many classes or harder ones?

Like extracurricular activities, colleges prefer to see a dedication to the few, rather than only dabbling in the many. Essentially, they’d rather see you take a few more challenging classes than a variety of more standard ones. If you can, focus on the area you’re interested in studying in college.

How do I choose the best rigorous classes?

The best people to ask are the high school counselors. They’re pros at these sorts of things. Talk with them about including rigor in your schedule as well as the colleges you’re interested in and the programs you wish to pursue. Planning with a counselor will open up new options, solidify plans, and be a lot easier than trying to tackle it all by yourself. Counselors are there to help; they’re an invaluable resource–so utilize them!

How much is too much?

Rigor is important, challenging yourself is important, but it’s also important not to bite off more than you can chew. Loading up too many AP courses in one semester is not showing rigor so much as poor planning. Ideally, try to aim for 2 or 3 AP/IB/Dual classes per year. Spreading out the challenges will make them more manageable.

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