AP Courses have Benefits but Plenty of Risks for High School Students
By Kathy de Jong, M.S., Independent Educational Consultant
If your high school student is considering going to a 4-year college, then discussions on whether or not to take AP courses, and how many, have probably infiltrated the conversations at the kitchen table or on the way to an extracurricular activity. While the discussion is necessary, it’s important to understand the good, bad, and the ugly of AP courses as it relates to the college admissions process. After all, to succeed in these classes and score well on the test requires an extra level of commitment by the student, not to mention potentially hundreds of dollars to cover exam costs.
Advanced Placement, or AP courses, offered by the College Board, have existed in American high schools since the mid-1950s as a way for students to take college-level courses. Currently, 37 AP courses are available; although, not every high school offers AP courses and certainly most only offer a handful of the available courses. What is interesting, however, is that the number of students taking AP courses and the number of exams administered has nearly tripled since 2001.
Students are feeling more and more compelled to take AP classwork as college admissions become more competitive. But are AP courses worth it? What do students gain from the extra workload?
College Preparedness – Students learn what it takes to be successful in college-level courses. Students will often need to “up” their study habits and exam-taking preparation to do well in these classes. A greater time investment is often required. However, while these classes often require more study time and a final exam, students should know that these classes are not truly indicative of college classwork. AP classes rarely require 20-page papers, and teachers will often spend weeks reviewing material for the final exam. That’s not going to happen in college.
Enhanced GPA/High School Course Rigor – Many high schools offer “quality points” for AP courses when calculating a student’s Grade Point Average (GPA). In a recent survey by the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), GPA was identified as the second most important criteria when reviewing college applicants, (second only to course rigor such as taking AP courses). So it stands to reason that taking AP courses is an important part of a college-prep program.
Exploration into Areas of Interest – By taking AP courses, students can get a deeper understanding of a particular area of interest – perhaps related to a future career goal. Colleges like to see this “depth” of understanding in a particular area of study.
Advanced Placement in College Curriculum and College Credit – Students may be able to “test-out” of lower-level college courses and earn credit as if they took the equivalent course at a 4-year institution. This can save students thousands of dollars and potentially a semester or two in school.
Too Much of A Good Thing?
While 4-year college-bound students should consider attempting at least one or two AP courses before graduating for the experience alone, the benefits may not be as wonderful as they first appear, and more does not always mean better.
Taking on too Much can Hurt, not Help. – If a student takes on too much of a workload during high school, to the extent that grades are slipping and the GPA is impacted negatively, AP courses are not helping. Students should only take these classes if they are well-prepared with prior coursework in the subject area, and they are able to dedicate the time necessary. Some estimates put the amount of homework/studying required at 3-6 hours per week for each AP course. Students with heavy extra-curricular activity loads or after-school jobs may find the workload unmanageable.
Advanced Placement in College and Course Credit is not a Sure Thing. – Every college and university has its own policy on the acceptance of AP courses for credit. Generally speaking, the more competitive the college, the less credit a student will receive for the AP courses. Additionally, students may be required to get a higher score on their AP exam to get any placement benefit or course credit at all. Each AP exam is scored on a 1-5 scale, with a 5 being the highest score. To obtain credit for an AP course, the student has to meet the score required by the university the student elects to attend. So for instance, Harvard University will only give credit for a score of 5 on AP exams. Other highly selective colleges will require a mixture of 4’s and 5’s, depending on the course. In many AP courses, less than 50% of students receive a score of “3” or better, which is generally required for credit at the less selective colleges. Bottom line, students should think very carefully before taking on AP courses because, with low grades, the consequences can be devastating, and the rewards are difficult to obtain.
And, Many Colleges Have realized that More is not Necessarily Better. – Some students will take up to 15+ AP courses over the high school years starting as early as 9th grade. While some students are up to the challenge and have a laser focus on their academics, colleges are looking for students that have more to offer than just AP courses.
Additionally, a study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has shown that taking more than 5 AP classes does not help students prepare for college as measured by their GPA at the end of the freshman year in college. At UNC Chapel-Hill, they are pretty explicit that racking up AP’s beyond 5 courses, is not seen as being “better”.
The high school years are tough, no doubt about it. Having thoughtful and informed conversations with your child about the benefits and risks of taking AP courses before they get started on them, can help ensure students are getting enough of a challenging course load in high school, but not too much.
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