This is not your mother’s world. College admissions to the most prestigious schools has become a strategy game which requires that you bring all your strategic advantages to bear on the process.
What’s most important?
Most students and families think GPA is. That is only partially correct.
The most important factor is actually the grades you get IN THE MOST CHALLENGING CLASSES YOU CAN TAKE, which we call “rigor”. Basically, the colleges ask, “Have you challenged yourself to the greatest extent possible, given the classes your high school offers?”
Colleges understand that some high schools, for example, offer far more advanced, honors and AP classes than others. And so they don’t penalize you for taking fewer of these challenging classes, if your high school doesn’t offer many.
However, for those schools that DO offer many challenging courses, the more elite schools will expect you to take some, particularly in your academic area of interest - that is the subject area in which you intend to major in college.
So how many AP, IB, or honors courses are enough? There’s no clear answer to that, but let me give you some guidelines:
I’ve found the very most elite schools are looking for 6-8.
They also want to see that you’ve taken all the challenging courses you can in your projected major, particularly for STEM majors. Does that mean you have to take Calc B/C if you’ve already taken Calc A/B? Or AP Physics 2 and C if you’ve already taken AP Physics 1? Definitely not, EXCEPT for the very most prestigious schools. (Think the top 30 National Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges on USNWR’s list.)
But my question is why wouldn’t you take these courses if they are offered at your school? Admissions likelihood aside, don’t you want to learn everything you can about the field you are most interested in as soon as you can? There’s no question that taking these courses now will make your life easier once you face the material again in college. As my daughter says, “STEM classes will kill your ego.” So there’s no harm in learning hard material twice - both at the high school and college level.
And let’s address the old question of whether it’s better to get a B in an honors/AP course or an A in a “regular” non-honors course. Every college admissions officer I’ve ever spoken with (and I’ve spoken to alot) refuses to answer this question by responding that “I’d rather see a student get an ‘A’ in an AP class! This seems obvious, right? The reality is that a weighted GPA over 4.0 these days, and an unweighted GPA no lower than 3.9 is pretty essential for getting into those top 50 USNWR national university and liberal arts colleges mentioned above. Why? Because those schools - with way more than twice as many applicants as they need - have the luxury of insisting that you PROVE you are capable of doing college-level work, as evidenced by your AP or IB class grades. And yes, they are far more interested in the grades you get in an AP or IB class (which represents hard work over a whole academic year) than they are in your AP or IB test scores (which represent your ability to cram for a 3-hour test ona sleep Saturday morning).
They know, specifically, that AP and IB classes and tests are WRITING-AND PROBLEM-SOLVING INTENSIVE! To do well in these classes, presumably you have to write clearly and in an organized fashion, think deeply, and communicate complex ideas. They are asking you to not just know the material and parrot it back, but to be able to use the material to solve or address complex ideas or problems; that is, to “think outside the box”. And guess what? This is the kind of thinking and reasoning you are going to need to do well in college and grad school….and to “run with the big dogs” in high profile careers!