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Higher GPA or Harder Courses?

students hanging out in a grassy area together

The question that parents and students most often ask me is, “which is better: getting a higher GPA or harder courses?”

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 seek students who push themselves. They want students to delve into their intellectual interests and who love to learn. 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 work.

Which is Better?

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.”


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