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Articles / Applying to College / How Do Guidance Counselors Decide Which Course Loads are "Most Demanding"?

Aug. 8, 2010

How Do Guidance Counselors Decide Which Course Loads are "Most Demanding"?

Question:Can you explain how the school guidance counselor decides whether a student's course load is "Most Demanding" or not? Is it based on just the courses taken junior year, or does the counselor look at all the courses from grades 9-12? For instance, I'm taking 6 courses: 4 are AP and 2 are regular. Is that sufficient or must every course be the hardest level offered?

This is a good question, but--as with many good questions--there are no good answers, only speculative and perhaps confusing ones. The Common Application provides no official guidelines to school counselors to help them classify course rigor. So, inevitably, such determinations will vary from high school to high school and probably, in some cases, even within a high school since each counselor must decide whether an advisee's course load is "Most Demanding," "Very Demanding," etc., and multiple counselors may have multiple perspectives.


Typically, the decision will be based on the courses that the student has elected throughout high school, because often those students who take the most rigorous classes in 9th grade will be the same ones who are still taking the toughest load when they are seniors. However, if a student's course load became more challenging--or less so--as he or she progressed through high school, then the counselor will most likely focus on the 11th- and 12th-grade selections.

Some high school administrators will supply their counseling staff with specific guidelines to help promote consistency when evaluating course rigor, while others will leave the decision to the discretion of the individual counselor with no clear policies to follow. You should certainly feel free to ask your counselor how these decisions are made at your school.

Whatever the answer, do keep in mind that college admission officials will understand that standards can vary markedly from high school to high school. Some guidance counselors may designate any course load with even a single AP or IB course as "Most Demanding" while others will insist on a full slate of AP or IB in order to earn the top rating.

My best guess is that your docket, with 4 AP's, would be considered "Most Demanding," but it also depends on the norms at your school and on which AP's you've chosen. Some, such as AP psych, econ, art history, and even statistics aren't always considered as "heavyweight" as others such as calculus, chem or physics.

So definitely ask your counselor to tell you what rating the colleges will see on your application after you apply. If you are aiming for highly competitive colleges, and yet your current course roster doesn't qualify as "Most Demanding," you may still have time to make some changes, as long as you feel you can handle the added rigor.

Best wishes to you, whatever you decide ... and keep asking good questions. ;-)

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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