The Easy ‘A’ vs. the Honors ‘B’: The Myths and Lies of High School Class Selection

Reader Jason S., a high school Junior soon selecting classes for his Senior year, asks:

I have to choose between two classes, one that is IB/AP and will be really challenging, and one that's much easier and I'm sure I'll get an A in. People keep telling me that I should always take the hardest classes I can, but my GPA can really use a boost, and I'm afraid that if I don't get an 'A' in the class I pick, my GPA won't be good enough. What should I do?

Excellent question, Jason, and one almost every student has had to face at some time in their schooling. If anyone ever tells you to, "always take the hardest class," you're getting bad advice. Similarly, if anyone ever tells you to, "get the guaranteed 'A'," you're getting bad advice. The right answer, unfortunately, is "it depends."

High School Guidance Counselor

There are two considerations you must make: balancing the numbers game of the college admissions process and the academic expectations the colleges will have. Which side of the balancing scale you put more weight on depends on your current status as a student and the college you want to get into. In general, if your target university has a particularly competitive application pool, it is more likely that the admissions officers will expect to see greater academic rigor. In these cases, they are already looking at a lot of very successful candidates, and need to use the strength of an academic program to further compare students.

In other words, if a specific college will deeply consider all applicants with a GPA above 3.6, it may prefer a student with a 3.8 who took rigorous courses over a 4.0 student who opted for an easier route. This, however, is no consolation for another applicant with a 3.4 and a history of great academic rigor who was rejected in favor of the 3.8 student who took an easy load.

You should absolutely not automatically register for the hardest classes available. Rather, you must know your scholastic capacity and move to the next reasonable, appropriate level of rigor for you personally in each academic discipline.

In practical terms, this means you should be comparing your GPA with the 25th and 75th percentiles of accepted students at the colleges you are interested in attending (these statistics are usually published by the admissions department and are available online). Let's say a hypothetical college has a 25th percentile admitted GPA of 3.42 and a 75th percentile GPA of 3.76. If your GPA is currently 3.8 (something above the 75th percentile number), you should aim to take the most challenging courses available to you, because a slight drop in GPA will not significantly hurt your chances. If, however, your GPA is 3.3 (under the 25th percentile), you should switch to an easier load to raise your GPA and make you more numerically competitive. Finally, if your GPA is somewhere in-between the two numbers, you should balance these two interests and aim to earn a GPA as close as possible to the 75th percentile while also maintaining a reasonably challenging course load.

Don't forget, though, that part of high school is about preparing yourself for the rigors of college. Wherever you end up going, you will likely find that academic expectations exceed what you were used to in high school. By constantly increasing the difficulty of your high school classes, the step up to college will be more comfortable. Not only does this make for a smoother first year, but it also increases your likelihood of a higher college GPA.

So, Jason, I wish I could say that there was an easier answer to your question. Naturally, I must suggest that you take the harder class and strive for an 'A' as this would be the most preferential outcome, but I understand that it might not be feasible. You must look at your own situation and consider your current competitiveness at your selected universities. Only then can you devise a plan which maximizes your chances for admission at each. Good luck!

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I had a few friends in high school that were involved in sports and needed an average GPA so the easier classes were always what they preffered, and some were lucky enough to get scholarships. Then there were the few of us that always took the AP classes and much harder time during finals and still had a hard time getting into the schools we wanted. High school reunions are coming up, it will be interesting to see where we all ended up.

- Mike, 03/31/09 at 5:56 pm

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