AP Courses: How many do colleges want?
I’ve just started researching college admissions in depth and already I'm about to answer a question with the same response that annoys me so much from college admissions directors. (Let me apologize now.)
A reader posed this question: How many Advanced Placement courses should a student take in high school to go to college?
The answer: “It depends.”
On what? On the student, the high school attended, the desired college.
Students can take no AP courses or one or two and find a fine college to attend. Others can take five or six AP courses in their senior year alone and get rejected from Harvard.
I asked dozens of college admissions directors to weigh in on this subject. Some (highly selective) colleges want at least two or three a year (or, at least, in junior and senior year), other colleges say two or three for a high school career may be fine.
An official of the College Board, which owns and administers the Advanced Placement program, said a few years ago that five AP courses in a college career was plenty, and in some cases, more than enough.
Yet some schools and school systems have a higher limit. For example, the Cumberland County public school system in North Carolina says this on its website:
“AP coursework requires significantly more homework, writing, reading, and research than Honors or standard level classes. The following are recommended limits on the number of AP courses a student should take, providing prerequisite criteria is met:
9th Grade: No AP courses
10th Grade: One AP course
11th Grade: Up to three AP courses
12th Grade: Up to four AP courses
Meanwhile, other schools actually limit the number of AP classes a student can take each year.
If you discovered a cure for the common cold, your AP course list probably wouldn’t matter. For the rest of you, the quality of the rest of your application matters a lot.
Colleges are aware of the extreme situations with AP: Those schools that offer no or very few AP courses, and those elite schools that have eliminated the program because they didn’t think the AP courses were strong enough and created their own.
For everybody in between, the best advice is for a high school student to take the toughest course that they can take that WILL NOT ROB THEM OF A LIFE and that will offer them a good chance to be successful.
One thing that all counselors will agree upon is that students should take the most challenging course load possible.
My issue is with the word “possible.” A kid can take 4, 5, even 6 AP courses and somehow manage to get the work done with decent grades, but there is a price, and it isn’t one I think is worth paying.
I know high school students who literally have no social life and enormous anxiety because they spend practically every waking hour doing school work. They take four or five AP courses in their junior and senior year, and have more work to do than the president of the United States.
I am of the opinion that that is ludicrous. I don’t think schools should allow it--and parents shouldn’t either. I may be in a minority but ’m not the only one who thinks so; take a look at this video on The New York Times website about how some students and teachers feel about the demands of a rigorous AP schedule.
Don’t get me wrong; students should challenge themselves as much as possible. But there are a lot of challenges in life. Learning to play an instrument, for example, is a challenge that kids should do in high school and homework shouldn’t rob them of all their time. AP courses aren't the only rigorous challenge.
“Rigor,” a word you may hear used constantly in the context of college admissions, is hardly a scientific world. In the latest Counselor Update newsletter from the University of Wisconsin at Madison admissions office, interim director Tom Reason writes:
“The conversation has come to be so routine, in fact, that a whole set of clichés, routine questions, and key phrases have developed. 'Students must challenge themselves.' 'Take full advantage of the curriculum.' And the regular laugh-getter (which isn’t as funny as it used to be): 'What is better: an A in the regular course or a B in the honors course?' Answer: 'An A in the honors course.' I guess I’ve used that joke myself too many times. ....
“We talk about course rigor as if it is this objectively definable entity and it is anything but that. In addition to the variability that exists from high school to high school, there is the process of students doing the right thing for themselves in preparing for life and college. Students make choices and have personal reasons for making them. For example, a student might weigh a capstone year of chorus against taking one more AP or the only AP available. Or a student might need to balance workload against the need to have release time to work and save some money for college or help out with family finances. Sometimes, though, students manipulate course load and course level in order to maintain or boost their GPA.
So where do we, UW–Madison’s Office of Admissions, stand in this debate? ... We don’t expect students to take every AP or IB course available. We do expect students to have made thoughtful choices that exemplify full preparation for college. Rigorous course work without performance in that course work is not what we’re after and will not be fruitful. We work very hard to balance the nature of a school and its course offerings with the entitlement all applicants feel they have. If there are situations that are useful for us to know about, with respect to the course selections made, tell us.”
Sounds good to me.
For the record: The College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, says that more than 60 percent of U.S. high schools participate.
The number of AP tests being taken by American students rises every year. According to the 2009 report on the AP by the College Board, 15.2 percent of the public school graduating class of 2008 had access to an AP experience that resulted in a score of 3 or higher. This is up from 2003, when 12.2 percent of high school graduates experienced the same kind of success on the AP tests.
The top score for an AP test is 5; schools that do give college credit often require a score of at least a 3, though many of the most elite schools are requiring 4s and even 5s--or refusing to give credit at all.
You can find state reports on AP participation here. The 2010 report on AP participation will be out in a few weeks.
I am posting beneath this some of the responses I received from college admissions directors about the AP course load question.
Where do you stand on AP course load?
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| January 29, 2010; 6:31 AM ET
Categories: College Admissions, High School | Tags: advanced placement, ap program, college admissions
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