• Strengthen Your Chances
  • Academics Matter

Challenge Yourself: Show Colleges You're Ready

Students sitting in an exam hall doing an exam in university

The biggest factor in getting into college is performance in challenging courses. Meeting challenges outside of class counts, too.

Colleges expect you to set the bar high all four years of high school. Stepping up to difficult material shows you are willing and able to handle college-level instruction.

Seek Academic Challenge in Core Subjects

When colleges evaluate your application, one of the first things they consider is the "strength of curriculum" in your transcript. They want to see that you did well taking the most challenging academic courses available to you.

Colleges look specifically at your grades in these core subjects: history, math, English, lab science, and foreign language. They expect you to take each subject for three to four years.

Take Courses Colleges Consider Challenging

You will find the most challenging core courses through the following programs.

  • Advanced Placement (AP). AP courses are designed for high school students, but the content is at the college level. There are over 30 AP courses, ranging from the sciences to foreign languages.
  • International Baccalaureate (IB). The IB Program is a two-year high school curriculum culminating in six rigorous exams. The subjects studied include languages, social studies, the experimental sciences, mathematics, cultural understanding, and community building.
  • Honors courses. Most high schools offer honors courses, which are more intense and faster paced than regular courses. The content is not at the college level and their difficulty varies from school to school.
  • College courses. Another avenue to advanced instruction is taking college courses at your local community college or university during the school year. You can also take online college courses or attend college summer programs.

Should You Go for an Easy 'A'?

Students often wonder whether it's better to get a lower grade in a highly challenging course or a higher grade in an easier course in the same subject.

Your best option, say admissions officers, is to take as many challenging core-subject courses as you can and still earn top grades. Take less-difficult courses in your weaker core subjects.

If Your Academic Options Are Limited

Colleges know the level of the classes your high school offers. If you have limited access to challenging courses, they will look for additional efforts you made to challenge yourself, such as taking community college classes, taking advanced courses online, and participating in academic clubs offered by your high school.

Seek Challenge Outside the Classroom

Colleges want to know how you have challenged yourself personally throughout high school. They will look for evidence of this in your application essays and short answers. For example, an athlete might work for several years with physically disabled students and write about what he learned from their courage and determination. These sorts of experiences, and what you learned from them, show the college that you have the maturity to seek personal growth.

What's Next?

Take a look at What Do Colleges Look For in Students? to learn more about what colleges consider important when they evaluate applicants.

For more on how honors-level courses can help prepare you for college academics, see The Benefits of Honors Courses.

Use the College Chances Calculator to see if adjusting your GPA and taking more honors courses will make a difference in your admissions chances at your favorite colleges.

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