As juniors are faced with decisions regarding senior year courses, I’m often asked by parents and students alike: Is it better to get an A in a regular-level class or a B at the honors-level? This is a very good question, and like most good questions, not a simple one to answer. One has to consider the bigger picture, and this includes the student’s entire schedule, their personal arc of performance, and the types of colleges they are focused on.
Among other data, admissions boards look at overall achievement, measured in grades; rigor, measured in number of honors and AP courses taken; and trajectory, measured in performance year-over-year. But how these indicators factor into a student’s overall application varies from college to college. A large state school, for example, receives thousands of applications and, for efficiency’s sake, is much more likely to make decisions more focused on easily obtained metrics like GPA. On the other hand, a small liberal arts college is more likely to take a more holistic approach, giving much more weight to a student’s grades in the context of their particular courses—taking note of how both grades and level of rigor changed from year to year.
It is important to remember that in either case, a student should choose the courses that will best reflect her ability and show growth—at whatever level that is. It’s wise to remember that taking an AP course assumes that students have a certain mastery of the subject matter. A poor grade in an AP course does not help the student. All students should balance their ability to perform with the idea that pushing oneself appropriately allows for acquisition of knowledge, as well as for personal growth.