How Challenging Should My High School Courses Be?

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Empowerly Team
Empowerly Team

Our collaborative team of content writers and researchers stay up-to-date on the latest news to help you ace your applications. We hope you enjoy the blog.

Classes are important for their intellectual stimulation, academic preparation, well as their effect on admissions. Students tend to think that more is better because of the associated prestige and rigor. But should you be taking as many classes as possible to boost admissions chances? Let’s take a moment to ask together – how challenging should high school courses truly be for a student to succeed?

Difficulty Ratio

Schools understand that high schools vary in offerings so what matters is the “difficulty ratio,” the number of AP classes taken divided by the number of AP classes offered.

If the fraction reduces to 0-25% the course load is challenging. A percentage between 25-50% is competitive. Numbers above 50% are very competitive.

The Pyramid

GPA is the base of the pyramid. As you can see, from bottom to top, it goes from academics –> activities –> vision. 

Local Competitiveness

A. Very competitive school 

Many students will achieve a high difficulty ratio here, because they are maximizing their chances. Colleges have regional admissions officers who understand local dynamics. Our differentiation here in admissions will be our activities.

So if you are aiming for the Top 10 schools, you definitely need to shine out of school. How do you do this? School clubs, out of school activities, competitions, and more.

If you are aiming for Top 50, ratio is important, but not as important as your unweighted GPA.

Basically, if you are at a tough school, the additional benefit of one or two more AP/IB after the 50% mark does NOT make a difference in admissions – focus on extracurriculars. If you are in the middle of the pack, focus on increasing your unweighted GPA and maybe reduce your overall course load difficulty.

B. Average school or school with limited course options 

If aiming for top 20-30 college, then aim to take the most challenging courses at your high school.  

Maximization of course difficulty, look for outlets to advance if school is limited in offerings. You will be evaluated on your efforts to excel with the resources at hand.

In the end

Course load matters, but GPA probably matters more overall. In reality, you need to look at the difficulty ratio in combination with your unweighted GPA to get a sense of academic competitiveness. 

Interested in getting your chances of acceptance for a specific college?

Questions? Let us know!