Which is better? Most rigorous or higher GPA?

If you are not aiming for top 20 schools (but more in the 30-100 range), is it better to take the most rigorous load or less rigorous load with higher GPA?
For example, unweighted GPA of 3.6-3.7 in the most rigorous course load or 3.9-4.0 unweighted in a less rigorous load (ie: 4-6 APs rather than 7-9 APs)

Top schools want to see both rigor and high GPA.

“Even” schools in the 20-50 range will expect that.

It’s such a “chicken or the egg” issue. We had an admissions officer answer that with “high GPA in rigorous courses” when asked.

If you’re able to be realistic, aim for some balance. Rigor doesn’t mean the easy APs, it means cores and what’s related to your possible major. Fine to mix it up. Where you take something easier (or honors,) do aim for top grades.

But don’t miss what the right combo of ECs is, for you and your plans. Learn enough about your targets to understand what does matter in your record.

Most rigorous with higher GPA

It will all be viewed in context. 4-6 APs across all core subjects in courses like Calc AB, English Lit, USH, Physics will be viewed differently than 7-9 in lighter weight courses like Human Geography, Stats, Psych, ES.

But I do think the fact OP is aiming at a broader selection of colleges makes a difference.

Though 30-50 can still have high expectations, there will be great colleges in the 30 (or so) to 100 range that want to see you stretch, can take on the higher challenges, are a thinker, etc. Not just the rat race of more AP and solid A grades.

And a lot depends on what your major may be, how you use available opportunities around you.

4-6 AP is fine. Slacking is a different extreme.

I would aim for the most rigorous course load you can handle while still maintaining good grades.

Merit aid seems reserved for those with the highest gpa, not necessarily tied to rigor, fwiw

This was a question we asked too. My daughter ended up with a lower GPA for taking more rigorous courses (she did 5 APs, with a sprinkling of Bs for classwork grades but mostly 5s in the actual exams, and took a number of honors courses). She got into her first choice college, at the lower end of the T30. To add the obvious though, these colleges do holistic reviews - a classmate of hers with better GPA and rigor (and tbh, we thought better ECs) was rejected. Based on her experience (only one kid of course), a 3.6-3.7 GPA in most rigorous, with a good rest of application, should be totally fine for the range of schools you’re talking about. Subject to your standardized test scores, I’d expect you’d be a match for many of those.

As you get closer to schools ranked near 100, this decision will matter less unless you are relying on merit aid. Both my kids are in schools in the 50-70 range (using USNWR rankings). My D16 had a 3.65 unweighted with 4 APs, and the best school she was accepted at was ranked about 40. S19 had a 3.1 uw with only 1 AP and he got into one school in the 50’s. Things get much less competitive as you go lower down the list. Many on this site are so focused on the top schools that they don’t realize this.

I have a DS20, so I am a learner on CC.
For us, the course decision was to get the highest GPA he is capable of achieving (8-hr sleep everyday with two extensive ECs) with the most rigorous courses that my DS also was most interested in, so instead of IB History, he chose IB global politics (which is considered not as rigorous as history); instead of doubling science, he picked ib physics and ib music.

How will this play out in the college application game? We will find out soon, but DS loves his HS, is having a great learning experience and enjoys it tremendously. That to me, is priceless.

Ideally, of course, you’d want the most rigorous courses and the highest GPA possible.

But, if it has to be an either/or question, then rigor over easy GPA is the path you’d want to take. For one, taking rigorous courses will prepare you better for the college irregardless of where you’ll end up at. College admission is one thing; surviving and graduating is another. Secondly, the college adcoms aren’t going to just take a quick glance at your GPA; they’ll thoroughly inspect and analyze the courses you took to determine your academic fitness level.

I always find it funny that people assume that they would do better in a “less rigorous” class. A class like physics or economics can be easier for some using Calc vs algebra. What about history? Analyzing the impact of an event and be easier than remembering a bunch of dates/names/places.

Similar to the “is it better to have a A in an honors class or a B in an AP course”. The inevitable answer is “we prefer an A in the AP course” when this comes up at T30 info sessions.

It’s a matter of increments and degrees. “Only” 6 AP course instead of 11 is very different than none instead of 5. A tenth of a point in GPA is different than three tenths.

Both are important and I don’t think there will ever be a “right answer”.

In your specific scenario, I think the 5 or 6 solid AP course while maintaining a 3.9+ would be best. Once you get over 5 or 6 the incremental value to rigor decreases, especially if it’s at the expense of grades.

Lol, a core history AP isn’t less rigorous.

I think OP is asking a simple question, based on wondering if he CAN get an A in a rigorous class. I don’t think it’s a hypothetical question.

I think the point is challenge/push yourself with the more rigorous courses and you might actually be up to the challenge (i.e. get out of your comfort zone).

@Jh123 is the objective to get admitted or to get admitted with merit?

To get admitted (for the higher ranked schools) and for lower on the list (to be admitted AND get merit aid)

For example, what would be better for a school like Ohio State or UC Irvine? Higher GPA and less AP courses OR lower GPA and 2-3 more AP courses. Would it matter if the major is STEM or history/philosophy?

I think that each student has to take whatever course load makes sense for them. Then find a school that fits what they have done.

Some students can handle a long list of AP classes. Some will find this too stressful. Personally I was fine with any math or non-biology science class my school could throw at me, but I would have died in AP literature or AP Euro.

Ohio State is a pretty big university. I have to think that they have room for any student who does does well and gets a lot of A’s and not much else, regardless of whether they were getting A’s in honors classes or B+'s in AP classes.

Agreed. A large public school generally relies on GPA very heavily.