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Higher GPA or Harder Courses?

The question that parents and students most often ask me is, “which is better: getting a higher GPA or taking a tougher course load.”

The humorous, accurate, but not always helpful response is: “Take the hardest course you can and get an ‘A’ in it.”

Here’s the scoop: this is not an easy question to answer categorically. In truth, it all depends on the student. Every student should take the most challenging courses he or she can perform well in. Colleges are looking for students who push themselves, who are interested and excited about learning. Honors courses are an indicator of intellectual drive and curiosity.

But it does no good to take a slew of AP courses and get a “C” or “D” in each. Further, anyone who takes an AP course should set his or her sights on taking the AP exam. You need to pass the exam–not the teacher’s tests–to get the true credit for taking a high-quality AP course.

Parents also ask about how GPAs are then calculated for honors, AP, and IB courses. Generally, grades are weighted to give “extra credit” in the GPA for these tougher courses. But that does not mean that a “B” in an honors course is the equivalent of an “A” in a regular college prep course. (For more on weighted vs. unweighted GPAs, see my post here). The fact is that an “A” is an “A” and indicates exemplary work, while a “B” is a “B” and indicates good wook.

So how to answer question? It depends on your child. If he or she is capable of honors-level work, by all means, enroll in those courses.

The worst thing a student can do, however, is to be enrolled in honors courses through sophomore or junior year, and then take easier courses in order to boost a GPA. This always backfires, as admissions officers want to see upward trends in both the GPA and the rigor of the academic program.

The fact is, you cannot hoodwink an admissions officer into seeing only a higher GPA. Admissions professionals are well-trained to identify the story behind the transcript.  To that end, you might like to hear how a director of admissions handles the question of “harder courses or higher GPA.”

Mark Montgomery
Montgomery Educational Consulting

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Reader Interactions


  1. Hi I’m a sophomore and I am taking all honors classes and Spanish 3. I am doing well in all of them except for honors geometry. We cannot use a calculator and all of her tests and quizzes have a ton of questions so I barely finish. I just took a test and I don’t think I did very well on it as I didn’t know how to answer many of the questions. Should I still stay in it or should I drop down to regular? I don’t know if it would look bad to colleges if I dropped down to a lower class. We are about a month into school right now.

  2. Hi i am a 9th grader who is in algebra 2 and all other honor classes (history, Bio, Spanish 4, and english) I have a 98 in english, 94.5 in history, 97.6 in spanish. I am struggling in bio which i have a 86 and math which i have a 87.5 in. Should i dropout. Also what ranking of colleges do you think a person with my grades can be accepted into. I play varsity golf…….


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