Is it better to take a few hard classes and get a high GPA in classes that don't challenge me or take many hard classes and get a worse GPA in more challenging classes?
(If you're looking for a quick answer, scroll down to the very bottom and read our "Summary" section)
This question was posed by a member of our community recently after she read our Freshman Year Foundation post and wanted a deeper look into what exactly colleges value more: a higher GPA or a more difficult course-load?
We're going to dive into these two questions and answer them here.
What Matters More: A Higher GPA Or Difficult Courses?
If you have not read our Freshman Year Foundation post, we highly recommend that you stop to take a took at that now as this post will build on some of the ideas covered there. So if you haven't taken a look at this yet, click here to read that post and then come back to this one.
In that post, we covered three students who implemented three different freshman year strategies as it related to selecting their classes. Student One, Bob, had a mix of regular level and honors level classes in his schedule, Student Two, Anna, had all honors classes in her schedule, and finally, Student Three, Cody, had all regular classes in his schedule. At the end of their first year, their classes, grades, and respective weighted GPA's look something like this:
Now, this raises the question, who did better? Who is in a better position to get into the colleges they want to? Anna certainly challenged herself that year, taking 5 honors classes, but has a substantially worse GPA than Bob or Cody. Cody took is easy and got stellar grades having the best GPA of all three students; and finally, Bob, while not getting the stellar grades Cody got, took a good number of honors classes and finished his freshman year with a GPA only marginally smaller than Cody's.
Let's take a look at the GPA vs. Class Difficulty tradeoff chart:
As you can see below, as one gets better grades and takes more challenging courses, they move towards the ideal spot: taking challenging courses and excelling in them. On the flip-side, as one takes less challenging courses and does not excel in them they move toward the spot every student should avoid. Those two are more or less self explanatory, but, the tricky part is a mix of these two situations: challenging courses with not so stellar grades, and not so challenging courses with stellar grades.
If you look on the chart, there is a small green section in the top right corner of the box where "Not Challenging" and "Above Average Grades" overlap. If a student is deciding between taking a full schedule of challenging courses, they should only do this if they believe that they can get decent or good grades in the courses. Otherwise, there is no benefit in taking the course. However, if a student ins't sure that they can get above average or good grades in a schedule full of challenging courses, what we recommend is that they take a schedule which will have a mix of challenging and not challenging courses. That way, in some courses, especially those they aren't as skilled in, they don't need to overexert themselves to get an average grade. They can relax a little bit more and focus on getting a good grade in a class which is relatively easy for them. While in others, ones they are more gifted in, they can push themselves a little more and do well in the class, getting the extra GPA boost that comes from doing so, while demonstrating to colleges that they are ready for higher education and more rigorous learning.
In summary, should a student take more challenging classes at the risk of a lower GPA or take easier classes at the risk of not showing college readiness?
Here's our answer:
If a student believes that they will be overwhelmed with their course-load, they should only take challenging courses in the areas where they have an obvious strength and opt for easier glasses in areas they are not as strong in. However, if a student believes that they can handle a very challenging course load without it impacting their GPA, they should try to take as many challenging courses as they can.
In other words, try to go for a schedule like Bob's where you have just enough difficult courses that they challenge you and give you an opportunity to increase your GPA, but not too many where, like Anna, you're overwhelmed.
Answering this question is a difficult one as there are many factors at play which influence whether or not a student should opt for one strategy or another. If you'd like to discuss your particular case, book a meeting with us here and we can look at it together. However, if you'd like to test this out yourself to see which strategy would work better for you, you can head over to our Dream School Quiz, enter in your information and see what would put you in the best position to succeed.
As usual, you can always contact us here to suggest a topic we could cover, or, if you'd like a one on one consultation about something personal that you would like some guidance and advice with, you can contact us here.
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