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Posted at 6:31 AM ET, 01/29/2010

AP Courses: How many do colleges want?

By Valerie Strauss

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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By Valerie Strauss  | January 29, 2010; 6:31 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, High School  | Tags:  advanced placement, ap program, college admissions  
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Next: College acceptance on display?


How timely. I have 2 Mont Co students, both in magnet programs. My oldest starts hs next year and is returning to our home hs school which has plenty of offerings to challenge him, as well as its own program (by application) for accelerated students. The program requires 7 AP classes and 10 Honors classes...his choices. As we start to look at hs and beyond, overload, burnout, etc is on our minds and 1 reason he didn't look at the hs magnet programs. Balance is what we're hard, play hard and chill. I'm amazed that students are permitted to fill their lunch hours with a class. Or students who fill every waking moment with school work or activites...leaving very little time for sleep. Where's the balance? Is it mainly in our area or nation wide? Are we encouraging Type A workaholics? I'm all for rigor and challenge...that's why we entered the world of magnet programs to begin with, but how about some balance without being on a treadmill for 10 months out of the year. How many students are burnt out from insane hs schedules? The world won't end if it's not an Ivy League school or if not all the SSL hours are done by the end of 6th grade. Balance means having time to enjoy that first warm spring day and smelling the earth wake up or taking a walk down a path covered in crunchy fallen leaves.

Posted by: valerie11 | January 29, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

I have a daughter in a very progressive Howard Cty HS who took her 1st AP class in 10th, and was very successful on her AP exam. Now a Jr. and taking 3 AP classes (Eng, Physics & World History) this year she spends most of her waking time doing homework. There is no time for her to participate in her sports activites.They are now 'on hold' (her choice) until May/June when she will dig out from under this homework mountain.
The school system requires the AP students maintain a quarterly grade of 'B' or better to stay in the AP class.
While my daughter wanted to take the AP classes she is currently in, and she is capable of maintaining excellent grades, the pressure of taking a heavy course load with its harder 'rigor' and keep all grades to a consistently high standard has been telling in its impact on her other life interests.
Why do schools encourage enrollment in the AP classes and ADD the additional requirement that a 'C' grade is not acceptable because the student has stepped up to the more rigourous classes?

Posted by: HowardCtyMom | January 29, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

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