Rigor level at different colleges / subjects / majors -- how different, and how to tell?

The best rule of thumb: the college I attend and my major are more rigorous than yours.

Realistically, there is no way to measure “rigor level at different colleges” although arguably-through self-selection-it’s possible to determine which majors at a specific college are “easier” by the number of students enrolled. But there are numerous flaws in that, too(very few English, er, Literature majors at MIT so is that harder than physics?).
There is no way to accurately answer the OP’s question.

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Here I was referring to a subject, not a course. A course in any subject can obviously be made easier by eliminating its more rigorous elements.

That’s often not true in a rigorous course. First of all, I wouldn’t associate workload with rigor. Some courses may involve lots of tedious work but little rigor. A rigorous course, on the other hand, may require a lot of time “thinking” but little “work”. For example, an elegant proof of a math problem may require only a few lines (I was once taught by a professor who likes one-line proof students can give in a class discussion), but to come up with the proof may require highly varying amount of time depending on the student.

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With the examples used, high school class standing generally corresponds to standardized scoring profiles. Caltech enrolls 96% of its students from the top 10% of their HS classes, Harvard 94%, Williams 95% and Bates 60% (Harvey Mudd N.A.). Standardized scoring was used in my earlier post based on the accessibility of the information. The intent was to suggest the importance of the 25th percentile academic level with respect to the potential for academic rigor across an entire curriculum.


Are you saying that Williams is more rigorous than Bates?

There is a reason whiy highly selective colleges that are similar to the ones you listed almost never use SAT scores for this purpose. For example, rather than use math SAT score, Harvard has all students take a math placement test. Based on placement exam score, HS course background, AP scores, personal goals, planned major, feedback from placement officer, and other factors; the student decides on which math course to choose. Harvard offers any of the following intro math starting points and sequence options – Math Ma,b; 1a,b; 19a,b; 20; 21a,b; 23a,b; 25a,b; and 55a,b. The lowest level (MA) is a half normal speed calc/pre-calc type class , while Harvard’s website describes math 55 as “probably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country”.

Rather than have a uniform level of rigor, Harvard students could start out at a math rigor level that I’d expect to be less than a typical college calc class or a level of rigor that may be among the highest offered for calc classes at US colleges. They make this decision based on their own placement test among other factors, rather than using math SAT. For typical Harvard students math SAT is often a measure of whether they can answer simple algebra/geometry/trig problems quickly while making few/no careless errors. If it’s an easy test year, just 3 careless errors could result in a 720 – well below 25th percentile of Harvard’s class. It is not an effective measure of whether a particular student could use a refresher on calculus or can handle a high level of proof based rigor, and it certainly is not a good measure of these decisions for non-math classes.

Smaller colleges like the LACs you listed may have more limited options for varied level or rigor due to the smaller student population.


There are two good tests for rigor.

First, look at basically the same titled course in your preferred subject in two colleges’ catalogs and look at the readings/ assignments. For me, the prime example was when my son and his friend at another college took the same titled course freshman year. My son’s class read primary sources. His friend’s class read only a secondary source textbook that referred to the primary source writers my son was reading directly! My son wrote several papers during the course and got the professor’s feedback on his writing. His friend had only a multiple choice midterm and a combo multiple choice/ short answer final. My son’s class had discussions, debating about what they read. His friend’s class was a large lecture format. Which school sounds to you like it is more rigorous/ provides a better education?!!

The second is how smart the students are. Like one of my son’s professors always said, “The students make the class.” If a higher percentage of students at the school are smarter/ higher achieving (you can use SAT/ ACT medians as a rough marker for this), the college will be more rigorous, because the smart kids will raise the level of discussion and be capable of more. (An honors program within a less rigorous college may have the same effect.)

That said, any student can hold him/herself to a high level of rigor anywhere (s)he goes: read more sources for background, go to office hours, find and befriend their brightest peers within their college, etc.


But it is not necessarily true that a college will be uniformly rigorous across all subjects or majors. A college may have high rigor in some subjects, but also have some subjects or majors where the less strong students (perhaps including the recruited athletes and development admits with outlier-low academic strength) tend to end up in.

It is also not necessarily true that a college with stronger students (which is not purely determined by SAT/ACT scores as is commonly believed on these forums) will have a rigor level that is higher than that of another college with less strong students. Perhaps it can, but that does not mean that it will. But also, consider that community colleges are non-selective, but offer courses rigorous enough to be accepted for transfer credit at universities that their students transfer to, even though those courses may be too difficult for some students (the “we will let you try, but you have to prove yourself doing actual college work” idea, which is the opposite of most highly selective colleges where the idea is “there are so many applicants who can do the work here, but we will choose only a few of them to build a class”).

Indeed, what may be more relevant in terms of overall college rigor is how rigorous the college’s general education requirements are, so that no student can “hide” from rigor that is likely (for the specific student) to be higher outside of the chosen major (which is presumably the student’s strongest and best-liked subject). That is not really dependent on student test scores or anything like that. Brown versus Columbia or MIT may be an example of highly selective colleges with different rigor of general education. UCSD’s different residential colleges (which are not major-based or related to student admission characteristics) have different general education requirements; some are considered more rigorous than others on that basis.


I am an ecologist, so I’m at the opposite end of the Natural Sciences, so my take is, of course, the opposite. Life is extremely complex, and any simplification will, by necessity, only provide us with an extremely incomplete understanding on the processes that we see.

Of course, we cannot talk about physicists and biologists without at least one XKCD and one SMBC comic:


Again as a trained physicist, I’ve long given up on making precise predictions of nature. To physicists, everything in nature can at best be described probabilistically. Most of us still find beauty and simplicity behind those complexities, probabilities and uncertainties, though.

The OP was about trying to figure this out before selecting what colleges to apply or attend, based on the LAC thread UCBalumnus referenced. Unless you knew the kids and the colleges involved, this wouldn’t be too useful for the random high schooler. The only way for this to be known is if it bubbled up say to a Fiske or Princeton Review (classes are rigorous here, not much learning happens here) or places like ratemyprofessor, unigo and similar sites.

Agree, that was sort of my point on that post for the ill-equipped students, the CTCL colleges suggested had GE requirements self-described as intense, challenging, and had to be taken at a certain time, so that would be one indication of rigor. Now of course many students may not find that to be a concern but could be for someone like the OP’s son (stem student with not much experience or interest in writing up to that point) and wanted to protect GPA the first year.

I think the concepts of workload, grading difficulty, general stress, core requirements, and academic quality can all get conflated and jumbled into the concept of “rigor”.

I definitely do not believe that top tier colleges are more challenging from a grading perspective. Large publics are notorious for weed out courses for example. And the discussion is very different is you’re talking about Engineering versus English. I would not say English is less rigorous but the required workload is less. Any student can choose a more or less rigorous path through most colleges. The bigger difference is in facilities, resources, possibly teaching quality, and definitely the academic preparation and bent of your fellow students.

I suppose the tippy top colleges also expect you to be more prepared day 1 and may offer fewer pre-Intro level courses.

At the end of the day most students want their degree to be seen as meaning something. Is a degree from UChicago more meaningful than a degree from Brown? Is a degree from Univ New Mexico as meaningful as a degree from UC Berkeley? I don’t know.

It all depends on where you are applying for a job, or who you are trying to impress at a bar/barbeque/PTA meeting.

Well, also for admissions to a PhD program.

But for 90% of the situations a bachelor’s degree is a bachelor’s degree.


I had to step away for a few days, so I’ve enjoyed getting caught up on this.

One very interesting thing is the almost-agreement in a number of posts with something I posited upthread: Rigor (at the level of the college, not the subject) is more of an issue of perception than reality, and that perception is based on inputs rather than on the actual expectations of student achievement in courses.

I say almost-agreement because I don’t know that those who focused on inputs would agree with me that it’s all perception rather than reality. But let’s conduct a thought experiment: Let’s say that Highly Selective University has pulled in students who are on average (and let’s pretend that you can quantify things this way as a thought exercise) at the 98th percentile of college students for intellectual capacity, while Open Access University brings in a student population at the 30th percentile, there’s a tendency to conclude that HSU must be much, much more rigorous than OAU. (Because of course a college would teach to the level of its students, right?)

However: I would suggest that there are no grounds to draw such a conclusion. After all, it’s pretty certain that OAU has a dramatically lower completion rate than HSU—and looking at that datapoint would lead to the conclusion, based on nothing else, that OAU must be more rigorous, right? (It would, sure, but the grounds for the conclusion would be just as flawed.)

After all, colleges aren’t in the business of acting as diploma mills—they are, at core, gatekeepers for licensing people as being educated to a particular level. I would suggest that all colleges are educating to that level (and thus with equivalent rigor), they’re just doing so for different target populations.

Of course, I can’t prove that any more than those who disagree with me can prove their side, so I don’t know that this has really moved us forward. But it’s an interesting thing to think about either way.


In some areas, like FL, the courses move at very difficult paces. You might be able to figure this out by looking at reading lists and course descriptions. I recall from my own time in college that when students went abroad and were placed in the programs there, there was a surprising amount of variability in how advanced students with 2 years of study were based on the schools they had come from. While some of this could be attributed to the emphasis of the students’ schhols (speaking vs reading vs writing), there were notable differences.

I think how hard a course is, and how rigorous the content, are two different things. A great teacher can make difficult courses doable, while an incompetent, or disinterested one can make an entry level course a nightmare.
S1 has experienced both at McGill.


True—and that brings us back to what may be the core problem here: Nobody has an actual workable definition for rigor.*

* Well, unless we define it, to steal Potter Stewart’s line, as “I know it when I see it”. But that has its own myriad problems, of course.

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A very important thing to remember.