The Right Level of Rigor

Jed Applerouth, PhD
February 29, 2024
min read
a gymnast balances on a tightrope

The “right” level of rigor depends entirely on the student. Some kids can handle a stacked course schedule and thrive. Others can handle the same schedule, but pay a price in terms of extracurricular engagement, peace of mind and enjoyment of school. While others simply cannot handle too much rigor; mid-semester their families will be calling Applerouth to help them out of an academic crisis. I have personally worked with those kids and families in crisis when everyone realized the academic burden on the student was too great.

I’ve seen parents, aware of the competitive dynamics of college admissions, fight to get their kids placed into the higher academic track, the AP or IB class. Just as I’ve seen parents downshift, pulling their kids out of honors and APs towards on-level classes, or even out of rigorous high schools, to keep the GPA, or their kid, from cratering. It’s not easy to get the mix just right.

As IECs, you regularly talk with parents about these issues. What’s the “right” schedule for my student?  This conversation was quite different several decades ago, before rigor became such a currency in college admissions. In the last several decades, the number of APs taken by students has absolutely exploded, as have expectations for your high-fliers. Similarly, in the age of runaway grade inflation, there is increasing pressure on rigor, given that just having As is not as impressive as it used to be.  

Highly selective schools are looking for a high level of academic rigor, of a student having “pushed” or “maxed out” the curriculum. This naturally creates heightened pressure for ambitious students to take on as much rigor as possible without sacrificing GPA or mental health and happiness.

Why push rigor?

  • Necessity: For ambitious students aspiring for admission to selective schools, some degree of academic rigor is a necessity. Without advanced classes on the transcript, certain options are off the table or highly improbable.
  • Challenge: Taking advanced classes in high school does provide some of the best preparation for college-level work. After making it through my APs in high school, I was fully prepared for college-level work, and actually found college to be easier than high school.
  • Quality: Many schools reserve their AP/IB course instruction for their most seasoned and frequently best teachers. If you are looking for the life-changing, inspiring educator, many times they will be teaching the most advanced courses.

The downsides of excessive rigor

  • Heightened academic pressure/anxiety: Some erstwhile happy and well-adjusted students are pushed into a state of excessive pressure/worry given heightened academic loads.  
  • Pushing a student beyond their resources: Some kids were doing just fine with 1 AP, but suddenly are falling apart with 3 APs. The confident, poised student is suddenly struggling to keep it together. They had adequate resources for one advanced class, but not three. At this point parents will have to bring in outside resources to prop the student up, or allow them to struggle.
  • The squeeze: If you stack on more academic demands, unless there’s slack in the schedule, other things have to give. Sometimes this leads to a decrease in social engagement, extracurriculars, exercise and sleep.  Rigor can pick up, but the “life wheel” becomes imbalanced.
  • Mental Health: When pressures pick up and activities get squeezed out, some kids can lose their joy and begin to struggle more broadly. Some students turn to negative behaviors, drugs, self-harm, to manage or cope. Others take a hit to their self-concept, their self-efficacy, and may allow self-doubt to creep in, replacing confidence. One of my colleagues filled her entire therapeutic practice working with students who had all the APs in the world, but  were struggling with mental health issues, anxiety and depression.

Know your student, and take a more conservative approach

As an Executive Function coach, parents often confer with me when it comes to finding the optimal level of academic challenge for their student. They want an academic load that pushes their kid, but does not push their kid into heavy stress or crisis. There are several factors I look at to help determine the right level of rigor for my student:

Look at the transcript and talk it through with your student

When I make an academic evaluation, I want to know about a student’s past. Let’s look at the transcript from the last several years and ask the student about their personal experience.  There may be an A in Spanish last semester, but the student admits to having had to dedicate an incredible amount of time to that class, at the expense of other classes.  If we are considering pushing into AP Spanish, we have to anticipate that it will be a very resource-heavy class and may affect the time available for other rigorous classes.

Consider other activities and non-academic demands

Some students have a major passion that feeds them and takes up a great deal of their time after school. If we push rigor too hard, they may have to give up the thing that gives them pleasure and purpose. Be mindful of keeping the things on the schedule that are most meaningful and rewarding to the student.

Whenever possible, ease into rigor

I’ve seen many students who jumped too fast into too many advanced classes. Without exception, my students who downshifted to a less rigorous schedule, my high school and college kids alike, ended up happier, with better grades, i.e., take this class in the summer, and push that class to next year. When we made more space in their schedule, my students all became happier and experienced a healthier level of stress.  

Knowing this, I try to ease into more rigor, and allow students to test the waters whenever possible, before diving in. Some high-performing students are confident they can take on 4-5 APs in a year, and I trust those students to know themselves and their limits. But if students are hesitant, or concerned about their ability to manage the workload, I tend to err on the side of conservatism, rather than pushing their limits.

Drop the external comparisons: It’s not a contest or a race    

Some high performing students tie their identity to their academic performance and course-taking. I knew a high school student who was so worried about the perceptions of others that she refused to drop down from an honors math class into a CP math class in spite of this class taking up excessive time and energy and leading to a clinical level of academic anxiety. Her identity was so tightly wrapped up in being an honors/AP kid that she opted to suffer through the class to preserve her status in the eyes of her peers. If we can help students worry less about external perceptions and group norms and pressures, we can help them choose schedules better suited to them.  

Assessing individual abilities and interests

Self-reflection is highly valuable when it comes to building an optimal schedule. How much time do you want to allocate towards academics? Towards non-academic pursuits? How much sleep do you need to function optimally? What is your stress tolerance? All of these elements factor into selecting the optimal schedule with the right level of rigor.

Choosing classes for you, rather than for the admissions office

Ask your student about the classes that genuinely interest them.  What do you like?  What are you worried the admissions office wants to see? Sometimes AP Stats is the right play when BC Calc, albeit more rigorous, would stress someone to their limits.  More rigor is not always better.  And students taking classes they like will typically do better academically and be happier.  

Balance in all things

Academic Rigor and GPA are essential components of the application, but they are frequently insufficient in themselves for admission to the most selective schools. Selective colleges are also looking for depth of engagement, personal qualities, leadership, service and other attributes not captured by an AP count or a GPA. Student well-being, growth and personal development all matter.  A student’s down time, hobbies, social life- these provide meaning and joy and are essential factors when considering an academic load.


Choosing the right number of rigorous classes is a nuanced decision that requires careful consideration of a student's academic goals, personal interests, and overall well-being. You can help your students navigate this process and encourage healthy self-reflection and awareness.  Competitive dynamics are real, but maintaining mental health and quality of life have to come before trophy-hunting.  We are looking to empower our students to know their limits, have healthy boundaries, and create a balanced life that is challenging, satisfying and fulfilling, both in school and beyond.

Schedule a call with a Program Director.

Questions? Need some advice? We're here to help.

A happy Program Director makes the peace sign with their fingers
An animated man walks while juggling 'A', 'B', 'C', 'D' balls
Free Events & Practice Tests

Take advantage of our practice tests and strategy sessions. They're highly valuable and completely free.

Explore More

Related Upcoming Events


(50% extended time)

Month DD, YYYY
0:00am - 0:00pm EDT
1234 Las Gallinas
San Francisco, CA 94960
Orange notification icon

No events found{location}

Check out upcoming Webinars.

Orange error icon


Let’s figure this out.
Try again or contact Applerouth.