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  • Writer's pictureJason Flurry, CFP

Balancing Rigor and GPA

Which one gets you the best results when applying for college

It’s no secret that college has become super competitive over the last 10 years or so. It’s not enough to just have good grades and a strong SAT or ACT score. Students also have to have rigor to show that they’re challenging themselves academically. But, if your student is struggling to manage their work load or if you’re unsure if you should sign him up for another AP class like your counselor is advising, this episode is for you.

I have people ask me all the time, should I take a regular on-level class and get an A or should I take this AP class and get a B? My answer is usually, take the AP class…AND get an A. That’s the ideal outcome, right? And for many people, a little extra effort and dedication can make that possible.

But what if your student is already struggling to get A’s and B’s now and crippled by the thought of adding more weight to the load because they “have to” in order to be competitive for college? I understand - and I think I may have a perspective that will help put your mind at ease. And like everything else I talk about dealing with Admissions and Scholarships, it all starts with the end in mind.

Getting started

If you haven’t done so already, think through what type of college is going to be the best fit for your student based on their key attributes, like intended major, location, school size, etc. Then look at the Common Data Set from each of those colleges to see what characteristics are most important to them too. Once you have a fit on your end and the knowledge of what works for the colleges too, you can analyze which piece of the prospect puzzle are most important for your student’s success with each one.

In most cases you’ll see columns identifying what college consider “Most Important,” “Important,” what they “Consider” in the admission process, and what is “Not Considered.” Usually academic qualifications are listed first, so look for the rows that show Rigor and GPA. It’s eye opening to see what some colleges prefer in their ideal applicants and it’s wonderful information to have as you’re doing your homework on which colleges to choose later.

Some colleges value a good GPA and a strong SAT or ACT score over rigor. In those cases, you want to do whatever you can to protect GPA rather than load up with extra rigor, especially if you feel it would hurt your overall GPA. If you see rigor in the “Most Important” category, you have to carefully think through how to balance rigor and GPA, especially if GPA is also in the “Most Important” category.

I’ve found that it is often much easier for students to explain why they didn’t overload themselves with AP and Dual Enrollment classes than it is to explain why their GPA is lower than it should be. And even when they can adequately explain away the situations that held their GPA down, the explanation isn’t usually sufficient enough to override consideration for scholarship and other awards. So while they may still get into the college of their choice, with no financial help in the mix, it may just be a lost cause.

See the bigger picture

Colleges typically have a lot more flex on rigor when there are other time consuming activities to also consider, like marching band, sports, dance, caring for family members, work, and extensive community service. Obviously when demonstrating rigor you want to show that you’ve challenged yourself as much as possible, but there are ways to do that outside of the classroom too.

Take a look at the whole picture when making decisions whether or not to add more academic rigor and see if it is needed to show that your student is a hardworking, well accomplished person. You can also use the same approach to determine if joining another club, doing more volunteer work, or getting a summer job is beneficial in the grand scheme of things. If your college doesn’t really rank those types of activities very high in their process, leave them alone and focus more on the areas that will give you more impact.

I see counselors, colleges, and even some other college planners encourage students to take as many AP courses as possible because the students who got into this college or that college last year had an average of "X" AP courses. So it's clear that the message is, "If you want to get into that college or a college that's similar, you should do the same thing they did to get there." That line of thinking is true at some of the more elite universities, but it’s only one item in a list of things college's consider. Zoom out to see the bigger picture and then evaluate your need and ability to add more rigor from there. That’s much more in your best interest than making decisions based on external pressure from someone else.

And also keep in mind that many colleges count Honors courses as rigor too, not just AP, IB, and Dual Enrollment courses. In fact, many smaller high schools and private schools don’t offer much in the way of AP courses, so the options are limited for students in those situations. Take Honors courses whenever you can and sprinkle in as many AP and Dual Enrollment classes as you can along the way while ALWAYS protecting your GPA.

Real world results

10 out of 10 times I’d rather work with someone who has a higher GPA than someone with a ton of rigor and a GPA in the middle of the pack. The results are almost always better for those with a higher GPA – and they can be significantly better when you're looking at out of state public universities.

I’ve had many, many situations where a student’s GPA has helped them eliminate all of the out-of-state portion of their tuition at some of the best colleges in the country. Rigor wasn’t even a factor in those scenarios, yet by focusing on the thing that mattered most, they got accepted and richly rewarded for their efforts.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen hundreds of situations where a student’s GPA was just below the mark to qualify for a huge scholarship because of a few borderline grades that didn’t go their way in some of their AP classes. The difference for them compared to the first students with the higher GPA’s is astounding. Not only does it often influence where that student eventually gets to go to college, but in dollar terms, the amount of lost scholarships in situations like these can total between $60,000 - $100,000+ over 4 years of college. Now do I have your attention?

Looking out for your best interests

Demonstrating rigor is important, but having a high GPA is more important. Get both as high as possible, but err on the side of protecting GPA whenever there is a conflict. It’s easier to make up opportunities than losses and your kids don’t need the added pressure of trying to dig out of a hole academically when it was unnecessary for them to be there in the first place.

It’s up to you to monitor this for your kids, so be vigilant and stay a step or two ahead of your counselor in this area. They are slammed with a thousand other things to do and it’s too easy to let time slip away when you’re busy too. But think about it. Wouldn’t it be a shame for your children to suffer needlessly in high school and then miss out on an opportunity of a lifetime because someone wasn’t paying attention to your individual needs? Don’t let it happen to you.

Look out for your own best interest or find an experienced College Planning Specialist who can help you stay on track during this critical time in your family’s life. With a little knowledge and the right approach, you can find the right balance and give your kids a fighting chance to reach their goals while also enjoying the journey along the way.



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