About February every year I field the same basic question from a variety of families and students. No, not which team will win March Madness, but actually something even more mysterious … how many Advanced Placement courses should I take? Since this question requires some careful self-assessment, the answer is different for different students.
What is an AP class?
The College Board, the not-for-profit organization in charge of the Scholastic Achievement Test, also runs the Advanced Placement program. The point of this program is to provide high school students the opportunity to benefit from exposure to college-level material.
A committee of college and high school faculty develop the course curriculum based on typical syllabi from introductory college-level courses in that subject. According to the College Board website — http://advancesinap.collegeboard.org — AP courses and exams are periodically revised to “enhance alignment with current best practices in college-level learning.” This year, AP physics 1 and 2, and AP U.S. history have the honor. Next year, it will be AP art history and AP European history’s turn.
After completing an AP class, a student can choose to take the AP subject exam. Students are not required to do so, but colleges use information about the scores — a 5-point scale, ranging from 1, which is “no recommendation,” to 5, which is “extremely well qualified” — to help determine how they will count the coursework.
Why take AP classes?
There are several compelling reasons to consider taking AP classes. But that does not mean a student should take every class possible. Nor does it mean that every student should take an AP class. Here are the main reasons why it is worthwhile.
1. Demonstrate ability to handle rigorous classes. College admissions officers want to see a track record that proves a student is ready for and will be able to succeed in college. Doing well in AP courses shows that a student is up to the task.
2. Additional points in GPA. Students can earn an extra point in their GPA calculation for earning a C or better in an AP course. Some schools cap how many extra points may be earned. For instance, the UCs and CSUs cap it at eight courses.
3. Increase competitiveness compared to other applicants. Colleges consider applicants within the context of their school. The more AP classes offered at your high school, the more college admissions officers want to see students avail themselves of those opportunities. Taking only a few when 20 are offered does not impress admissions officers. (See the box regarding Davis High School’s AP information.)
4. Earn college credit and/or skip introductory level courses in college. Students who pass AP exams (usually with a 3 or above) may reduce tuition expenses by earning credits toward graduation or by skipping certain prerequisites. Another benefit is taking a reduced course load and thus freeing up time to devote to studying or internships. Make sure to check each college’s policy since there is a wide variation.
I believe this column would be remiss if I did not mention the recent concern expressed by several colleges and universities about whether a high AP exam score actually represents subject mastery. Dartmouth, for example, conducted an informal survey and found that 90 percent of its freshmen who earned a 5 on the AP psychology exam, who were then were given a condensed version of the college’s final exam on the subject, failed the final.
Some schools now grant credit only for a score of 4 or 5. Others, like Dartmouth, will not award college credit for high AP scores effective beginning with the high school class of 2018. With this in mind, be sure to do your research and learn about the policies of the schools on your college list.
The big reveal
OK, you may be thinking, “Now I know more about AP classes, but she has not answered my question yet. How many APs should I take?” Well, only you (the student), your family and your teacher can really answer this question. The goal is to challenge yourself, take the most rigorous classes available, but maintain a solid GPA.
Be strategic and take AP classes in your areas of strength and interest. If you can handle all APs, then go for it. But most students should aim for not too many nor too few. Make sure to factor in sports schedules, family commitments and extracurricular activities, all of which can undermine your ability to put your best effort into the class.
A few parting words
I want to end with well wishes for those of you who are studying for AP exams. Best of luck! And, here are a few last issues to remember.
* Take the hardest classes in your favorite subjects.
* Avoid taking an “easy” AP just for the bump in GPA if this is not an area of interest. Colleges are well aware of this practice.
* Please take the AP exam whenever possible. Colleges want to see that you followed through and made the effort to demonstrate subject mastery.
* Remember to build in time for fun and free time. This is a marathon, not a race. Do not overload yourself and compromise your social/emotional well-being. Because, no matter what, there is a right college out there for you!
— Jennifer Borenstein is an independent college adviser in Davis and owner of The Right College For You. Her column is published on the fourth Tuesday of the month. She lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.therightcollegeforyou.org.
Advanced Placement at DHS
* 19 AP courses plus 11 Honors classes
* Counselors recommend limiting the number of weighted classes per year to two in 10th grade and three in 11th and 12th grades
* In 2013, 593 DHS students took 1,098 AP exams
* 89% earned a score of 3 or higher