An Eligible College Student knows that During School Hours, beyond Academic Requirements, they must consider whether to Take Challenging Courses. A classic question: is a student better off taking an Advanced Placement (AP) class (say, Chemistry) and getting a B or taking Chemistry and getting an A? There are two different important perspectives on the answer. The first, from an Admissions standpoint; the second, from an Education standpoint. I am going to start with the Education standpoint.
CHALLENGING COURSES – EDUCATION
- Students attend High School to LEARN. If an AP class is so overwhelming the student has difficulty learning, than obviously that AP class is not the best place for that student. If a student is challenged, as in at times they find an AP Class hard to master, that’s a good thing. At some point we all will find something challenging – for some people, it might be a Middle School Science class, for others it won’t be until their English Literature Doctorate program. We all need to experience being challenged and struggling to succeed; the sooner the better, in my mind. Most of us have met someone who was so remarkable, they never seemed to have to try hard to succeed and never seemed to fail. They may end up devastated when they are in a bigger environment with many remarkable people and realized they aren’t the best, or didn’t succeed.
Most students notice a significant increase in difficulty when they begin College classes. I believe part of that challenge comes from the fact that High School Students spend more time in the classroom then they spend studying for their classes. The opposite is true for College Students – they must be focused and apply themselves outside the classroom, because in order to be successful, they will need to spend more time studying outside their classes than they spend in their classes.
- High School classes are preparing students for College; some High Schools do a better job than others, with innumerable variables (strength of teachers overall and in a particular subject, student’s aptitude, resources, students’ socioeconomic status, to name a few).
- While some elite Colleges do not give credit for AP classes (I assume they do not feel AP classes adequately replace the College-level course), the point of an AP class is to provide a College-level course in a particular subject. If a student can manage the learning in an AP class, it makes sense for them to challenge themselves with that AP class, to prepare them for College classes.
- If you are a parent reading this who has a child that is capable of AP-level High School classes, but is not motivated to do so, there are ways to motivate them (see Why Take AP Classes, below). But if they are forced into that environment, they may choose to shutdown when the going gets tough.
CHALLENGING COURSES – ADMISSIONS
- Colleges want students to be successful. A clear way to demonstrate a student is ready for the rigor of College is to take an AP class and do relatively well in that class. How well is relatively well? That answer varies, depending on who you talk to, but a B or higher is a common answer.
- Colleges want intellectually curious students, particularly in their area(s) of interests. If you are indicating you want to be a writer, that AP Chemistry class is less important to your academic record than the AP Literature and AP Language classes, although taking and performing well in AP classes outside your field of interest is a good idea. In general, the more prestigious the Colleges you are applying to, the more rigorous your academic workload should be, meaning that AP Science class could be important in your academic history, even if you are planning on being a writer.
- Is there a downside to taking an AP class if you are worried it will be too rigorous for you? You may not do well, which impacts your GPA, which can impact your admissions prospects. This is a tough choice to call, with many things to consider. If you are faced with this decision, talk to your HS Counselor or your current teacher in that field of study (ask your Biology teacher about AP Chemistry, for example). But you need to be ready to work harder in an AP class.
- The fact is, if you are applying to a College that heavily weights GPA or generally receives many highly qualified students, you have to be careful about your GPA. BUT most of these Colleges also heavily weight academic rigor. It’s complicated – look for advice from your HS Counselor and via word-of-mouth, but make sure the information you are gathering targets your particular case.
- Trying to figure out how a College values these variables? The best resource is an Admission Officer at the College. Another option is to go to collegedata.com. Type in <name of college> in the search box. Select that College and choose the Admission tab, scroll down to Selection of Students. Recommendations may be listed as Very Important, Important, Considered or Not Considered.
WHY TAKE AP CLASSES
If you need motivation to take an AP class, here are some reasons:
1. If you score well on their AP tests, you may receive College credit, reducing your time in College (saving money, if you are going to pay their freight) and/or freeing up time to take electives, minor/dual/double major in another subject you find interesting, study abroad, etc.
2. If you don’t like doing what you consider to be “busy work” or sitting in a classroom taught to the lowest common denominator, the learning experience is likely better in an AP class. The caliber of students (which can be partly defined by focus/determination) in AP classes tends to be higher, meaning the teacher can teach at a higher level and there are often less student disruptions and possibly more “aha!” moments. The teacher is more likely to expose an AP class to something “out of the box”, say a really cool experiment involving fire.
3. Many schools choose to assign their best teachers to AP classes. Because there may be only one teacher at a school teaching a particular AP class, you have the rare opportunity to effectively choose your teacher, because if you choose to take an AP class, you likely know who will be teaching the class.
Don’t take an AP class if you are unwilling to make the effort or struggled with that subject in the non-AP class.