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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About the Author

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

74 Responses to “Higher GPA or Harder Courses?”

  1. Allison says:

    Thank you for your reply. Yes. My parents do have money to pay for the tuition, so I don’t need to worry about financial aid. However, would financial aid affect my college admission? And is my GPA and grade enough to make me have a chance with those colleges?

  2. Vishnu Tanguturi says:

    I am currently a sophmore in high school and I have a 4.0 unweighted and 4.7 weighted. I took APworld last year and passes with a 3. I am taking 4 AP classes this year. What else do I need to do to get a good GPA and score well on the SAT.

  3. Leo Araya says:

    Hey, I’m in 8th grade and I was wondering, would it look better if I took one year of advanced courses and get A’s B’s and maybe a couple of C’s or just stay regular and Get straight A’s maybe one or two b’s? Does it really impact what I do in 8th grade, in the future?

  4. Hello,

    Colleges will not see what you did in the 8th grade. The question is, which curriculum will help prepare your for success in high school?

    Katherine Price
    Senior Associate

  5. Hello,

    It sounds like you are going to have a challenging year ahead with 4AP classes. It also sounds like you already know what to do in order to obtain a good GPA. As for the SAT, the most important thing to do is practice. Figure out the best way for you to prepare. Do you need a tutor? Can you take practice tests on your own through a book or on-line? You should also plan on taking the test early, December or January. That way, you can receive your score and still have time to prepare in the areas you struggled with in order to take the test again in the spring. Finally, you should also consider SAT Subject tests. Many selective schools require SAT Subject Tests and you want to make sure you give yourself enough time to take them and the regular SAT.

    Katherine Price
    Senior Associate

  6. Hello Allison,

    It is difficult for us to assess your chances at any university without getting to know you and viewing your full profile: transcripts, essays, activities, etc. As Mark mentioned, we would be more than willing to discuss this with you. As for admissions and financial aid, your financial aid status only affects your admission status if you are applying to schools that are not need blind.

    Katherine Price
    Senior Associate

  7. Perazz Iman says:

    Son took 5 AP classes, 4 AP tests and scored three 5s and one 4 in junior year. There was no AP test offered for AP Computer Science AB this year, so no test score, but he earned an A in the class. He also took honors Pre-Calculus and honors Physics. He got 87% in Pre Calculus and scored 750 on the SAT Math II subject test. He earned an A in Physics. So, it was a very rigorous junior year. 33 out of the 41 courses he has taken in high school are honors level or higher. Seven are AP. He has earned 50 high school credits at the end of junior year, when 52 are needed to graduate. He did this by taking 9 high school courses in middle school. He is also a National Merit Semifinalist.

    Unfortunately, what he does not have is a high class rank and GPA. Since middle school courses are not weighted as honors courses in his school district they bring down his rank from top 15% to top 25%. In addition, his high school tends to not give too many As. For instance although he has 5s on English Lang and Biology AP tests he got Bs for class grades. So, his unweighted GPA is only about 3.4. I was wondering how will this impact his chances of admission to colleges. Most people tell us that a GPA below 3.6 and rank below 10% will keep him from getting into good schools. Is this true?

  8. Hi Shaun,
    Colleges look at both your grades as well as the rigor of your courses when they assess you for admissions. They want to see you challenge yourself with courses but not at the expense of doing poorly in those more demanding classes. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say whether or not you might get admitted into some of the schools that you mentioned as we’d need much more information about you. While test scores, GPA, and course load are important, they are far from the whole story.

  9. Congratulations to your son for his fine performance in high school! It sounds as if he has really challenged himself and done well. While GPA and class rank are very important criteria for admissions assessment, they are not the only ones. Schools try to look at students holistically, and this means that they will consider, among other things, the level of course rigor, the difficulty of the high school, awards the student has received, extra-curricular activities, strength of recommendations, and the personal qualities of the student that shine through on the college application. It is not strictly about GPA and rank.

    I suggest checking to see if your high school actually calculates the middle school grades into the GPA. Even though your son took high school level courses in middle school, many high schools will only note the grades on the transcript but will not make them part of the GPA equation. Most colleges are not that interested in the grades that a student got in junior high, anyway, as they recognize that in those early years, students may not display their academic potential.

    Best of luck to you and your son, and please give us a call if we can help guide you further in your son’s quest for college!

  10. jacob jones says:

    Hey this is Jacob Jones,

    I am in 8th grade going to high school and I am told to choose 2 advanced classes because i want to participate in sports. This year I have made all As for every class and I can only choose between world history, biology, or calculous. I have an intrest in math and history but I know that to have an advanced science class would be a good thing because of the recent jobs avaliable. I am worried that I might be overwellmed with the advanced math. I would like your oppinian on what i should do.

  11. Hi Jacob,
    I always advise students to challenge themselves in the subjects that they most enjoy/in which they are strongest. Given your interests, I think the choices of math and history are good ones. As far as science, most of the jobs you’re referring to require a college degree, so unless you have a strong desire to study science in college, I’d stick with the subjects you’re more interseted in.

    I hope that helps.

  12. Natasha says:

    I’m a sophomore in high school right now and I’m taking AP World this year. However, for next year, I was thinking about taking honors for history instead of AP because I’m not really interested in history and I am taking two other AP classes (AP Chem and AP Lang). But I’m worried that taking only two APs for junior year is not enough and that dropping from AP to honors will look bad to colleges. I have also heard that AP US is a lot easier than AP World. What should I do?

  13. Hi Natasha,
    I can’t really advise you specifically on your situation, since I’d need to know much more about the courses that you have taken and your high school course offerings overall. What I can say is that everybody is different in what kind of course load they can handle, and if it seems as though 3 APs might be a little much for you, then you shouldn’t take the 3 APs. This is especially true if the subject matter doesn’t appeal to you. You definitely don’t want to compromise your performance in your other classes by over-extending yourself. On the other hand, if you think that you can manage the demands of 3 APs and will get something out of AP US History, then you may want to take the extra AP. Colleges do like to see you challenge yourself when it makes sense to do so. Good luck with your decision! If we can be of further assistance, please let us know.

    Andrea Aronson

  14. Giridhar Murali says:


    I am going to be a sophomore in high school very soon. In freshman year, I took 4 honors subjects, and did okay in them. My unweighted gpa for the year was 3.53 and my weighted was 3.73. I have been hearing that colleges do not value your weighted gpa. I was wondering since my weighted gpa is under a 4.0, will colleges still look at my unweighted gpa. This would be unfair as I have taken on the hardest courses in freshman year and the colleges are not going to look at the amount of hard work that I did. I am trying to get in to a medical school to major in cardiology. I would really like to know if the college will take my 3.53 gpa or 3.73 gpa into the factor for admissions.

    Thank You

  15. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hey to you!
    The fact is that your GPA of both types will be considered, but in different ways. The weighted GPA helps admissions offices to understand where you fit in the general pecking order within your school. By taking a harder courses, you get a little extra bump in your GPA, which also tells the admissions officer that you are challenging yourself academically. Admissions offices like students who challenge themselves.

    However, the unweighted GPA tells us that you do have a mix of A’s and B’s. There are students at your school, presumably, that are getting all A’s in all honors courses, and therefore will have a 4.0 unweighted and a 4.0+ weighted GPA.

    I realize that you think this is unfair. well, I hate to tell you, this admissions process not only is unfair, but it’s also quite subjective.

    The one good thing is that colleges take your precise GPA with a grain of salt. They will eyeball you and see that you are an A/B students taking rigorous courses. They will see that you are challenging yourself, but they will also see that there are students at your school who perform better than you. You are “hard work” is quite admirable, but grades reflect performance not the amount of sweat that went into that performance.

    I would advise you to stop worrying about whether colleges will look at your waiter unweighted GPA. The fact is, they will look at both. So you would be better off trying to raise both by getting more A’s next year and fewer B’s

    Thanks for writing in, and I hope you found this somewhat helpful – – even if a bit dissatisfying. Good luck!


  16. Patience says:

    I’m a high school freshman and I was wondering if CP classes weighed differently towards your GPA than regular classes.



  17. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Patience,
    This depends entirely on the policies of your school. You should talk to your guidance department for an answer to that one.
    Thanks for writing in!

  18. Anonymous says:

    My child goes to a catholic school. The school has mandated religion as a compulsory elective for all the four years of high school. This would mean that compared to other secular schools, a student of the catholic school would have less chance to take electives that can demonstrate the child’s interest to the admissions officer.

    How will this impact the child’s chances in college admissions compared to students from other schools, since the interest of the child is to do college degree in an area related to science. The subject is part of the child’s overall GPA.

    How do non-religious colleges/universities that are secular, compare students from catholic schools and secular schools, for admissions ?


  19. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi. Thanks for writing in. No one is excluded in the admissions process for having attended a religious school. There is no penalty for this choice. It is also nearly impossible to compare how schools fare, one against the other, because schools are not evaluated for admission: kids are. What matters is what your child does within the context in which he or she is educated. How does she or he use his time, both in and out of the classroom, to seek challenges and excel. With regard to the GPA, the religion courses will be evaluated with other nonacademic courses like gym and keyboarding, unless they are more substantive “religious studies” or comparative religions.
    I hope this is helpful.

  20. someone says:

    Hi I am a sophomore and I am taking H Physics H Pre Cal Ap Euro H English and Pe 10. I struggle in Honors Pre Cal because my teacher doent teach it well any tips to get a B or higher

  21. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi. If you are struggling in pre-calculus, your best bet is to begin by talking to your teacher for tips. Even if your teacher is not all that great, he or she should be able to give you some ideas about how to improve your performance. If that doesn’t work, you might also talk to the chair of the math department at your school for more tips. And then you should consider getting a private tutor, if possible. There are also lots of online resources, perhaps the best of which is Khan Academy at http://khanacademy.org. Check out their offerings for pre-calc!

  22. Maxa says:

    Hello, I’m currently a juinor in high school. I am taking AP Physics, AP Lit, AP Human Geography, and AP Economics in my first semester. The problem with this is that AP Human Geo and AP Econ are a semester long. This means in my first semester I would have taken 4 AP classes while in my second semester I will only be taking two. Will this look really bad if I want to apply to good colleges? Originally most students take human geo one semester and econ the next semester, but since I’m taking a two hour block class -one that will make me able to become a CNA- it didn’t fit into my schedule. Should I drop the class and take another AP class and a regular class? There’s not much semester long AP classes at my school.

  23. Mark Montgomery says:

    Stop sweating. You can’t change schools, and you can’t dictate the class schedule. You have selected courses that presumably interest you. The good thing is that you have two AP classes in the first semester, so you’ll have grades for those when you apply in the regular decision round. And because the classes are hard, admissions folks will look kindly upon your good work and rigorous schedule. If you are concerned that the second semester looks light, just add a sentence or two in the “other information” section of the Common App and explain that the imbalance is due to scheduling conflicts at your school. End of story.
    Now just focus doing well in the courses you are taking!
    Good luck,

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