Navigating the World of AP Classes

Jed Applerouth, PhD
April 13, 2010
min read
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As the College Board's flagship SAT product continues to lose ground to the juggernaut ACT, its AP product line has become more deeply entrenched in the world of high school academics. For better or for worse, APs have become the de facto symbols of rigor and commitment to academic excellence for high school students across America. No longer the domain of only the most ambitious, AP classes have become a staple for an increasingly broad spectrum of college-bound students. Students willing to play the admissions game know they must take AP classes. Moreover, if students are to submit their most competitive applications, they must consider not only the number of APs they will take, but also the strength of each class.

How many APs?

Across the country, as fall schedules are firming up, parents and students and counselors are having discussions around the "right" number of AP classes to take. The right number of APs is based on several factors: the selectivity of colleges and universities to which a student will be applying, the options available at a student's high school, and the readiness of the student to succeed in AP classes.

Rules of thumb are emerging which may help guide the conversation regarding the right number of APs for particular schools. During my travels around Washington DC, I heard several college counselors comment that UVA now wants to see a minimum of 6 APs on a student's transcript. Around Atlanta, I have heard counselors mention that UGA wants to see at least 2-3 APs on a student transcript. The colleges themselves never advertise a fixed number of APs that are required for admission, but they make no secret that APs are now an expectation, evidence of a student's commitment to academic challenge and excellence. Students who fail to "max out" their school's curricula may have a harder time competing with other students from their class. Expectations vary from school to school. Students from Andover will be expected to take a different course load than students from a less competitive school. If the top quartile of students takes an average of 6 APs before graduation, students taking only 2 APs may have a harder time competing in that pool.

The "Right" APs

In Virginia, one counselor commented that the number of APs a student takes is not as important as having the "right" APs on the transcript. She commented that UVA would much rather see a 5 on AB or BC calculus than on Statistics; a 5 on Biology or Chemistry would carry more weight than a 5 on Psychology or Microeconomics. This intrigued me. I polled several of my educational consulting contacts and colleagues in admissions to get a broader perspective. To my surprise, most everyone acknowledged this disparity among the APs. There are APs and then there are "light" APs. I kept thinking of TAB and Diet-Rite. Various counselors referred to the "lower" tier of APs as "lighter," "softer," "less rigorous," and "less demanding."

In Manhattan, Bari Norman, Director of Expert Admissions and former admissions officer at Columbia, commented that particular APs are considered softer. Among this list she included Human Geography, Statistics, Environmental Science, Studio Art, and even Psychology. Bari advised that many admissions counselors are "sensitive to which APs students elect to take, given what's available to them at their high schools; however, there are other colleges that really don't distinguish between the different AP classes. The best thing to do is to ask about this as you visit colleges of interest."

Another of my educational consulting contacts, Jane Klemmer, from Briarcliff Manor, NY, acknowledged that there is "definitely a distinction among APs." Jane commented that "Calculus, especially BC, the lab sciences and foreign languages are all considered highly challenging. I would agree that Statistics, Environmental Science and Psychology are less so. English Composition is another that is not among the most rigorous."

I checked in with one of my friends currently "behind the desk" at one of the most competitive universities in the US. From his perspective, the most impressive AP courses are AB and BC Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Foreign Languages, and English Literature. He mentioned that "Euro and US are very common and typically in the 10th or 11th grade so they might not be quite as rigorous, but [are] still strong." He also gave me a caveat that "our faculty in some of these disciplines would argue 'til they were blue in the face if they thought I valued Biology over Environmental Science. At the end of the day, we just hope that students have a nice complement of rigorous courses while still balancing this with pursuing their interests. I am an advocate of student learning, not resume building."

A former admissions officer at one of the most selective Ivies gave me a different perspective. From his view, APs are a given, a necessity for a strong application. But more important than the rigor of particular APs is the coherence of the narrative, the overall packaging of a student's application. For one student, a 5 in AP Environmental Science would be just as compelling as a 5 in AP Chemistry if that student demonstrated a passion and commitment to environmental science in his activities and projects outside of the classroom. However, for a pre-med student, taking AP Environmental Science over AP Chemistry might give an admissions officer pause. Everything depends on the cohesiveness of the story, and the narrative created by the application.

3s, 4s and 5s: the scores you need

For students applying to the most selective schools, AP scores under a 4 will generally fail to strengthen an application, and frequently, credit will be granted only for a score of 5 (this wiped out any motivation I had for prepping for Calculus in my senior year). However, for students applying to many public and less selective schools, a 3 will do the trick, earning a student credit towards graduation or towards an accelerated curriculum. I watched my sister leverage her many high-scoring APs and skip a full year at the University of Texas.

Strong AP scores are important, especially for a student seeking admission to the most selective schools. AP scores can reinforce strong grades and offer confirmatory evidence that a student has mastered her academic subjects, in the same fashion as the IB exams. However, low AP scores, coupled with strong grades paint a discordant picture. A student with top grades and lots of 2s and 3s and an occasional 4 on the APs is presenting conflicting information to the admissions department. This may be indicating that a student has a testing issue. Or, alternatively, this could be an indication of a weakness in the school's AP program.

One trend that college counselors and educational consultants alike have noted is that the AP pool continues to grow larger and larger. More students feel compelled (whether or not they are prepared) to take AP classes, and more schools feel compelled to meet the rising demand for these classes. Many schools are offering AP classes without adequately preparing their students for the AP exams. And with more students taking the tests, the curve is shifting. More and more students are taking the AP exams; the percentage of students taking APs has more than doubled in the last decade. Unfortunately, many of these students taking the exams, due to their lack of preparation, have little hope of passing. Because these tests are graded on a curve, it has become easier and easier for well-prepared students to hit 4s and 5s. These days, it is not uncommon for whole classes to hit 5s in the best-prepared schools. Fifteen years ago, this was almost unheard of. The profusion of ill-prepared students has lifted the scores of the adequately prepared.

To Prep or not to Prep

AP exams require preparation. Students who score the highest on the APs frequently have teachers who rigorously prepare them for the tests. Other teachers are philosophically opposed to teaching to the tests, to the detriment of their students. Insisting that students prepare themselves for AP exams is rarely a recipe for success. Each year we work with many students who need additional support for their APs, above and beyond what was offered in their school. Many parents struggle with the fact that their children completed their AP courses, achieved solid grades, but were completely unprepared for the AP exams. Students who are going to prep for the APs should begin 3-4 weeks in advance of the AP. As we are approaching mid-April, it's the right time to begin to prepare for those May exams.

Rigor is more than just the APs

One of my colleagues on the college counseling side is very concerned by the current AP frenzy, which is inspiring short-sighted behavior. Parents, cognizant of the importance of APs, are insisting that their children take AP classes, whether or not they can handle them. These parents want to completely skip over the honors track, which is a natural bridge to the APs. Parents need to understand that academic rigor can mean honors classes as well. For many students, honors classes are the perfect demonstration of commitment to academic achievement. For many students, jumping from regular to AP can be too large of a leap. For other students, ramping up from 4 core classes to 5, then to 6, is the best way to demonstrate rigor. Focusing exclusively on APs as a demonstration of rigor ends up hurting many students. And waiting until senior year to begin showing academic depth and challenge is not the best strategy.

The Right to take APs

As APs become increasingly important in the admissions game, many parents are demanding that schools open up opportunities for their children to take APs. Do students have to earn the right to take an AP class? Is the school obligated to provide AP opportunities to the student? I've witnessed this debate before where the demands of parents were pitted against the policies and academic tracks of the schools. I understand the parents perspective: we want the most opportunities for our child. And I understand the school's perspective: resource constraints are real and there are only so many sections a school can offer; moreover, sometimes schools really are protecting the students by keeping them out of AP classes. In my book, if you take an AP class and land a C, it is clear that you over-reached. It would have been much wiser to stay in honors and achieve a B or even an A.

Finding the balance

To best serve our students, we must help them select the right mix of classes that provide them with the appropriate level of challenge. Not all high school juniors or seniors are ready to take on 3-4 AP classes in a year. APs are college-level classes: it's important to remember that. I always tell my students that my junior and senior years of high school, with 7 AP exams, were more demanding than any of my years at Penn. Making it through high school was the challenge. By comparison, college was easy. I advise that students take a more holistic view of the APs, in the context of their lives, their activities, their resources, and their obligations. More is not always better, and quite frequently that extra AP can tip the scales in the wrong direction.

I'll offer a quote from Jane Klemmer, who shares my perspective on the appropriate use of APs. "The child struggling through one too many AP classes who is suffering physically and emotionally under the stress, may be experiencing more harm than good. In too many of these cases, students end the semester feeling worse, not better about themselves. Instead, we should help our children discover the satisfaction of achievement from mastering a challenging task that pushes rather than paralyzes them. We as parents should help our sons and daughters set goals that ignite their passions and help them build resiliency and confidence." If we can balance the APs with the other demands a student faces, we can create appropriate levels of challenge, set our students up for success, and engender feelings of mastery and self-efficacy. APs and scores are only one part of the equation, and one metric for achievement. We need to remember that we are growing young people and setting them up for success, well beyond the boundaries of high school.

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