Should I Seek Difficult Courses Or Go for Easier Grades?


You probably already know the average test scores and GPAs of the most recent incoming class at your dream school, but those statistics typically don't offer much insight when it comes to the courses in which those grades were earned. Were the students earning the highest marks in the hardest classes while they were in high school like you? Or were those students playing it safe in lower-level classes that more easily yield higher marks? There are a few key tips to keep in mind when determining what types of courses you should aim to have on your transcript, and how to make those grades work best for you in the long run.

How Is My Application Read by the Admissions Office?

Reducing college admission to a handful of statistics is an appealing idea because it can seem to remove the mystery from the whole process — but most admission officers admit to reading applications holistically rather than piece-by-piece in terms of the data that is represented there. That means they don't just look at a student's stats, they look at a full secondary school transcript, including grade trends over time and the difficulty of a student's classes (alongside all of your other application materials, of course!).

When The Princeton Review collected school information for our book The Best 382 Colleges, 2018 Edition, nearly 90 percent of those schools reported that both an applicant's GPA and the rigor of his or her high school transcript are very important factors in their admissions decisions. This leaves us with one overall piece of advice when it comes to this question: Take the most challenging courses available to you and work as hard as you can to earn solid grades while doing so. This will show admission committees a few things: That you are intellectually curious, up for a challenge and willing to work hard.

Focus on Balance

Sure, it's important to give yourself a challenge to show colleges that you're up for it, and it's also of the utmost importance to study hard for awesome grades. But we also know that while you're studying for those grades, you're probably also preparing for standardized tests, participating in extracurricular activities, perhaps captaining a varsity team or working an after-school job, plus finding time to spend with your family and friends.

So while you're working your hardest in your academics, it's important to avoid burning yourself out — stress is definitely not a key ingredient for success! Make sure that you take some down time each week, and don't be afraid to ask for the help you need from teachers, advisors, parents and tutors; that's what they're there for. The trick is to challenge yourself, not torture yourself!