LAUNCH THOUGHTS - Admissions Decoded: What is Academic Rigor?!

Founder Lauren Joyce Hensel provides insight into the definition of academic rigor and how to achieve it.


In the American admissions world, you will hear university enrollment representatives (counselors, directors, vice presidents) speak with a variety of industry terms, which lead to confusion and misinformation. At LAUNCH, we want to help you understand more of the process in a transparent and meaningful way.


One phrase you are bound to hear in the admission and application process is academic (or course) rigor. Before I explain academic rigor, I want to encourage parents reading this to throw out their perceptions and preconceived thoughts about universities. Times have changed, which means the admission process and school selectivity has changed in addition to entrance requirements.


At the Spring 2019 IECA Conference, I attended a session with enrollment representatives from esteemed colleges such as Gettysburg College and Bucknell University. With 47% and 30% acceptance rates respectively, these schools are considered VERY selective in their admission’s process. Note - typically schools with less than a 50% acceptance rate are VERY selective. These numbers might surprise some families, but they are real and carry meaning. When I asked these schools what they consider academic rigor, I received the same answer (with some minor word changes) - the most challenging course load available to the student within the context of their school and abilities. What does that even mean?!


Basically, I encourage students to follow this advice - take the most challenging courses available to you which allow you to be pushed without having detrimental effects on following your interests outside your courses or your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. What makes this so difficult to define is that there is no standard scale of rigor across all states or local school districts in America. Global nomads and third culture kids may have an added element of an international education from another country, which adds to the confusion.


According to a study done by three PhD statiscians, “Rigor is multi-faceted and can be influenced by the type and sequence of courses taken, intensity and difficulty of the courses, alignment to postsecondary expectations, quality of instruction, and level of student engagement and effort. Through this conceptualization, rigor is an unobservable construct that can vary across schools and classrooms” (Allen, J., Ndum, E., and Mattern, K., June 2017). While elusive and deemed a social construct, admission offices still utilize the concept. Hence, it is important to provide simplified explanations to guide families.


As a parent, encourage your child to challenge themselves in the classroom and admit when work is too easy so they know to enroll in more challenging courses the following year. If you notice your child struggling to keep up with the workload, encourage an honest conversation with their school counselor/career advisor or independent education consultant to discuss adjusting the course load for the upcoming school year. If you are unsure what to do, seek advice from a trusted, professional support group (not just parents or family members). If the child can take a higher level course and receive a slightly lower grade, universities will applaud the rigor.


While there is no set formula, LAUNCH encourages families to follow these five simple practices to develop academic rigor:

  • Enroll in more courses that will challenge you in your critical thinking, problem solving, interpersonal, and writing skills.

  • Take the toughest courses you can do well in without sacrificing time to pursue interests and make a difference while doing them.

  • Remember admissions office evaluate you in relation to your school profile. If your classmates are taking rigorous courses and you are capable of doing the same, they expect it of you.

  • Schools would prefer to see a letter grade lower in a harder course. #truth

  • If AP, IB, or Honors courses are not your thing or are unavailable, consider dual enrollment courses at a local community college. This shows you are capable of university-level work.

Above all else, when in doubt, contact a professional for guidance. Something as simple as investing for an academic assessment and recommendations about course selection could pay dividends for a student. Selecting the right course load early on can help make the college/university search and application process easier in the future. If you have questions, reach out. We are here for you. And remember to #dreamlaunchsoar!

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