Admissions Info

GPA, Class Rank and Academic Rigor

School academics is the most important metric on which college applications are judged. And it's completely understandable to stress out about them given that the stakes are so high. While a lot depends on your academic performance reflected in class rank and GPA, you should remember that these are only some of the factors that govern your acceptance to prestigious colleges. There are several other academic parameters like individual grades, course rigor, awards, and extracurricular activities that need to be kept in mind.

Talking about school academics, students often confuse them for just your high school grades, but there are equally important other factors in play. The factors that make up your high school academics are the following:

  1. School GPA
  2. Class Rank
  3. Academic Rigor

This guide will help you understand the above concepts and their criticality in the college admission process.

GPA – The Ultimate Judging Factor

GPA stands for 'Grade Point Average.' It is precisely what it implies – an average figure of all your grades. While individual schools might have different ways to calculate GPA, mostly, there is a central governing body that determines the strategy to compute it. While it's primarily awarded on a scale of 4.0, if you come across someone with a 9.0 GPA, try not to be shocked. That's just because the scale used for them might be different.  

Among the factors that might govern your GPA is your school's emphasis on extra credits to compensate for course rigor. That means you might end up with a higher GPA than 4.0 if you've taken numerous high-level courses in high school and secured good grades in them. College admission panels are quite aware of these factors and understand that each school has different parameters, which may be unfair to other students. This is the primary reason why college governing bodies don't analyze your applications solely on GPA.

You need to understand that most colleges will perform a holistic review of your applications giving course rigor and individual grades far more importance over your GPA. Furthermore, they might recalculate your score, adopting a standard formula for all candidates. While this may help them judge better, it inevitably puts students in the blind spot as it makes the competition among students very bleak.     

Having individual high grades might do the trick for you. College review boards analyze student grades against the course rigor, as this provides a better view in terms of a student's capabilities. While that's true, you might still find a few colleges that pick winners just based on GPA scores, like public schools and colleges that make decisions with substantial deference to grades and stats. But still, they might adopt some standard formula to recalculate the GPA of all applicants to rule out unfair advantage.      

Important Takeaways

  • Whether your grades land you that dream spot or keep you out of the highly selective college will depend on how you pan out the rest of your application. If the selection committee recalculates your GPA, there's absolutely no way to determine where you might rank as compared to other candidates. Stop stressing on minute differences because the difference between a 3.68 and a 3.7 is negligible, especially if individual scores and course rigor come into the picture.
  • Understand that developing a desire to gain knowledge is what works in the long run. Sure, you might get lucky with a few colleges with lucrative scores on your application, but your experience is a true reflection of your sincerity towards education. A student that applies the gained knowledge within the structure and creates something out of it will always have the edge over others. And it's likely that in such cases, some grades will be looked over.
  • The fact of the matter is that admission to renowned colleges is equally hard for everyone, no matter how perfect their applications and scores are. The correct approach is moving forward and making sure you have a broad list of colleges that adopt a range of selectivity parameters. This will improve your chances as you might find a perfect match, given your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Often, students stress about lacking in a few areas, but it is okay to slip here and there. While you can always try to excel, it is understandable that no one is perfect, and even college panels are aware of this. We suggest not dwelling on bad grades too much. Understand that stressing about it will only hamper your forward progression.
  • The chances are that you might be asked about your not-so-great grades in the admission process. In such a scenario, be honest and smartly communicate the reason behind the gap. If you can specify the hardships you faced and how you overcame them to still end up with better grades, you might fare better than other candidates with stellar scores. Specifying a learner's approach despite the obstacles tells a lot about your personality. It makes people aware that you have faced a few bumps along the way but have continued forward despite a drop in your grades.

Class Rank – Looking at the Creamy Layer

Class rank is a numerical representation of a student's academic performance in comparison to peers. Often calculated by schools as a measure of GPA (compared to other individuals from the same class), class rank is computed multiple times as a student progresses through the academic career. If your class has 100 students and your GPA score is better than 90 of them, it means your class rank is ten, and you are among the top ten percent of your class.

Your class rank depends not only on your performance but also on how well your peers do as compared to you. Some schools might not have a ranking system in place as class rank is often seen as a means to promote unhealthy competition and to rank better in class, some students may take up less rigorous courses.

While some colleges may consider your class rank, some might give little importance to it. Colleges that follow a holistic approach are rarely interested in how well you perform compared to your peers. They are more interested in learning about the courses you took and the path you followed, given the course's rigor. They understand that class rank might not be the ideal factor to judge an application, provided students from all over the country apply for the admission process. When there are facts like ethnic and economic diversity among applicants, how can a student with class rank three be considered higher as compared to rank 4 of other schools? Thus, by no means can you be judged solely based on class ranks.

What to expect   

There is absolutely no measure to determine if a college might consider your class rank or not. What matters is your approach to academics. You need to understand there are numerous kids out there with higher ranks than you, but this doesn't mean that you are any less. Being more than your rank is what matters. You can't just focus on outperforming other kids. This not only distracts you from your ultimate goal but also creates unnecessary stress. 

Additionally, most colleges are never interested in class rank. Instead, they happily award the coveted seat to a well-rounded student who has done well, indicating particular rigor in the undertaken subjects. Students must demonstrate that what happens around them doesn't change the fact that they are learners for life. If you can make the panel understand that you are learning-driven rather than rank or grade focused, be assured that you will make the cut.

Academic Rigor

Academic rigor can be defined as the intellectual challenge a class or course poses (in simple words, if it is challenging to understand, it is considered to be more rigorous). But rigor isn’t limited to this. It also revolves around the number of classes that exist in a student’s schedule and how hard the student has worked to outshine and earn good grades. The whole idea is to find out whether the student can handle extreme pressure. Can he/she remain calm and act wisely in practical situations like handling the business world and tricky life situations?

So in a way, rigor helps students exercise their skills in a manner that can prepare them for the future.

The variety of subjects in the academic field includes honors, AP (Advance Placement program), and IB (International Baccalaureate), among other classes. Few subjects covered in the AP program are AP Research, AP Seminar, art history, biology, calculus AB, calculus BC, chemistry, Chinese language, and culture. On the other hand, the subjects included in the IB program include studies in language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics, the arts.

Class selection sets a platform for students to execute balance. Hence, it is advisable to select a few tough subjects along with a few easy subjects. Students need to approach their course load with balance by setting realistic goals. They should also be aware of their pressure handling ability. Additionally, their interest matters a lot. If there is an alignment between their selected subjects and their interests, it becomes much easier for them to follow any approach.

Choosing among alternatives is difficult

It’s hard to comment on the superiority or inferiority of classes. All courses offered by prestigious colleges are subjects of interest on a global level. Still, some classes could work for some students, while others could appear too difficult or not aligning with their goals. For example, AP subjects might not feel appealing to some students, so they may opt for a blend of CC classes (Community college) with AP. The situation may be different for some other students.

This conflict of class selection is what poses a real challenge for aspirants when filling college applications. Students may struggle to find which classes are the best for them. Instead of getting confused, what they must remember is that they need to choose what works best for them.  

Typically, colleges specify which courses are available and let applicants know about them in their website’s admissions section. So it’s better to visit college websites regularly for alterations or additions to their requirements.

Detailed Analysis of subjects

There are quite a few highly selective colleges that follow a core curriculum. They usually offer a few main subjects without which any course cannot be considered complete. While you don’t need to be enrolled in more than five academic classes, you should make sure you have at least one from the following list:

  • English is compulsory in all four years, although you can combine AP Language or AP Literature in the last year.
  • History (or Social Science).
  • Math is not a compulsion, but if you desire to be a part of highly selective schools, you should take Calculus (or beyond) in your senior year.
  • Science has three majors (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics). Most colleges look for at least a year in all three subjects respectively.
  • Foreign Language has become a trend in the academic field. Most schools want their students to take four years in a foreign language.
  • Some colleges regard IB courses as more rigorous than AP classes. AP classes are often preferred over Dual Enrollment (DE) courses if students have these options. If you want to be a Humanities or a STEM major, consider taking at least Honors or AP in those classes. 

The rules, regulations, and expectations vary from university to university. Every student wants to protect his/her physical, mental, and emotional health when dealing with a challenging course load. Thus, it would be best if they don’t stress themselves with the load. No college expects students to take only APs, IBs, or Honors. Admissions officers only want students to choose the most rigorous course load that they can comfortably handle, but that doesn’t have to mean overload.

Final Basics of Academic Rigor and Class Selection

Schools having a holistic approach to admissions consider course rigor and grades in specific classes more critical than the overall GPA (Grade Point Average). They want to see that students take the most rigorous course load that they can responsibly handle while staying mentally and emotionally healthy. Other schools, especially many state schools, are more willing to look at the overall GPA without a significant emphasis on course rigor. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have any expectations concerning course load.

If you’re fresher and know nothing about selecting subjects, you should preferably opt for the hardest and most exciting classes. This might ensure that you secure the highest grades in those classes. You can still find the balance to be able to do extra activities and follow your interests. If you can handle stricter material, you may increase your chance of selection in high-end colleges.

Additionally, keep the following points in mind:

  • Every college updates its selection criteria in the admission column of their websites. So first and foremost, make sure that you read these criteria clearly and carefully.
  • Take the hardest course load that you can handle while holding on to your mental health.
  • Maintaining balance is the pillar of happiness. Therefore, keep juggling the list of subjects as per your ease.
  • Focus on the 4x5 approach by taking four years of each primary subject like Science, Math, English, History, and Foreign Language.
  • Do not opt for honors/AP/IB for every course.
  • Calculus is a key to enter a few selective schools. You may take Calculus in your senior year. If your school doesn’t offer it, colleges will evaluate your application based on your school profile. So, find a way to take it – either online or at CC.
  • Talk to your high school counselor and teachers to see where they think you might best be placed for some of your classes you are questioning.
  • Focus on what you can do to maximize your best academic performance and put together your best application.

When applying for the best colleges in your country, you should aim to be a fantastic student because you want to learn and lead a happy life. If you follow this simple mantra, good grades will follow you no matter what. As stated earlier, colleges tend to look for those students who have learned to steer their fear and are willing to step out of their comfort zone to achieve their goals. Therefore, you need to consider courses that align with your interests.

FAQs on Academic Grades

How many AP/IB classes should I take without it affecting my high school grades?

Your high school GPA is not to be taken lightly. Nor can you go easy on studying for your AP/IB course. So if we were to compare the grades of both, we’d say getting an ‘A’ in your high school class is more important and it’s acceptable if you get a ‘B’ in your AP/IB course. Deliberate over which AP/IB courses you want to take and how much time and effort will go into it and then decide because your regular course shouldn’t yield to anything. Besides, you should be left with ample time to study hard and do well in the AP/IB course too. 

How many AP/IB classes should I take without it affecting my extracurricular activities?

A majority of the students who apply to the top universities that are very choosy will have almost identical high school grades, AP/IB, and standardized test scores. So the only thing that sets them apart is how they have spent their free time and what extracurricular activities they have pursued. Since you will have to spend considerable time for your AP/IB courses, you should weigh the consequences of taking on too many courses and having little time for extracurricular activities which are an important component of your application.

Should I take as many AP/IB classes as my school permits?

A few high schools choose to limit how many AP/IB courses a student can pick in a year. You should check how many courses your school would permit you to take and then decide if you want to go all the way or take only some of the courses.

Should the number of AP/IB classes I take depend on where I’m applying?

If you plan to send applications to those colleges that are very choosy and picky, then you will need to take on more AP/IB classes as such top colleges will expect you to have taken all the difficult courses. So for instance, if you are applying to any of the Ivy League or such reputed universities like MIT or Duke, you should strive to take 7-12 AP/IB courses.

Should the number of AP/IB classes I take depend on how many my contemporaries take?

Your application will be pitted against your classmates and contemporaries who will have also applied. So the college admission staff will not only compare your AP/IB scores with theirs but also how many courses you have taken compared to them.

Final Word

If you follow a challenging approach towards education with learning as the primary goal while keeping a balance to not allow stressful aspects, like peer competition and weights of expectation, to overpower your approach, your hard work will surely reflect in your GPA and class rank. And even if you cannot maintain a perfect score, there's no need to stress as most college admission processes are more than just good scores and ideal numbers.  

While you can't overlook the fact that GPA and class rank might be the sole criteria for some scholarships and public schools, it's the mindset of not allowing numbers to burden your approach, which will help in your future endeavors.