The Ivy Coach Daily

May 7, 2024

What Looks Better: An A in a Regular Class or a Lower Grade in a Regular Course?

Previously Published on June 20, 2015:

It’s the age-old question in elite college admissions. Over the years, many students and parents have asked us at Ivy Coach if it’s better to get an A in a non-honors course or a B in an honors course.

We understand that honors courses can be challenging. We also understand that getting an A in an honors course is more difficult than getting an A in a non-honors course. Duh. Yet, while students and parents may not like our answer (in fact, they may strongly dislike our answer), our answer to this age-old question is that it’s better to get an A in the honors course.

Feel free to roll your eyes. Let out a sight. We know. The truth can hurt. But admissions officers at our nation’s highly selective universities want to see that students excel in the most rigorous curriculum available to them — and then some.

While there are many other components in the elite college admissions process, the two most important factors are a student’s grades and the rigor of their high school curriculum.

Do Grades Matter in College Admissions?

If a student doesn’t get top grades, it conveys to admissions officers at our nation’s highly selective universities that they’re not among the strongest students from their high school.

Suppose they’re not among the strongest students from their high school. Why should a university with a single-digit overall admission rate, a school that denies countless valedictorians and salutatorians, offer them a seat in their incoming class? After all, it’s about more than just getting top grades since there are several thousand high schools worldwide, yet often only 1,500 or fewer seats in an incoming class. But top grades are the table stakes.

Of course, students can earn admission to highly selective universities with imperfect grades. Over the years, we at Ivy Coach have helped many students earn admission to highly selective universities with multiple Bs (and while getting a B is never a good thing from an admissions standpoint, if there’s ever a time to do it, it’s earlier on in high school, so the student can show they’ve grown). That said, such grades create obstacles to overcome in the admissions process.

Does Course Selection Matter?

But top grades in a vacuum don’t mean anything. After all, admissions officers at our nation’s highly selective universities want to see that students are challenging themselves and that they’re intellectually curious. Suppose a student isn’t enrolled in the most rigorous curriculum at their own high school. In that case, it’s as good of an indication as any that the student isn’t all that interested in challenging themselves and the student isn’t especially intellectually curious.

In fact, we always encourage our students at Ivy Coach to go above and beyond the course offerings of their respective high schools — not only to stand out from other applicants worldwide but to stand out from applicants from their very high school. After all, their peers at their high schools will be critical competitors in the elite college admissions process.

But even the rigor of a curriculum can’t be viewed within a vacuum. Why? Because there are highly competitive high schools as well as low-performing high schools. All high schools are not created equal. As such, in the highly selective college admissions process, admissions officers scrutinize the coursework within the high school context. Yet if you’re under the impression that just because your child’s high school doesn’t offer a class, your child shouldn’t take that class to be competitive in the admissions process, especially in the age of online learning, you’re mistaken. It’s about going above and beyond the offerings of one’s high school — no matter how competitive that high school may be.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with Course Selection

So many families who first come to Ivy Coach think that they don’t need help with course selection. They believe their child’s courses are what they are. Of course, they’re wrong.

If a student takes AP Calculus BC as a junior and plans to take AP Statistics as a senior, it can disqualify them from contention at a top university. After all, AP Stats is a wonderful class, but it’s not math. If a school doesn’t offer Multivariable Calculus, the student should take it at a local community college or online as a senior.

On the flip side, not taking math as a senior will demonstrate a lack of curriculum rigor and intellectual curiosity, and there will be applicants who’ve taken Multivariable Calculus. Some will have also taken Linear Algebra and Differential Equations.

If you’re interested in optimizing your child’s high school coursework so they can stand out in the elite college admissions process, fill out our complimentary consultation form, and we’ll be in touch.

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