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Admissions 101: Are Low Grades in AP/IB Classes Better than High Grades in Regular Classes?

A few weeks ago, Jay Mathews asked readers a tough question in his Admissions 101 forum - which is better: an A or B in a regular course or a C in a more challenging course like an AP or IB class? Jay sided with AP, saying that all students interested in tier 1 or tier 2 schools should take at least 2 AP or IB courses. Even if that means a C on a high school transcript, Jay argued, colleges will appreciate a student who is willing to take on a challenge. Reader reactions have been pouring in ever since:

eloquensa: “My strategy suggestion is a little different from yours - I don't know about the college front in the C-in-AP/IB-or-A-in-regular argument, but if the student is a little more strategic in course and teacher selection it's a lot easier to avoid that dreaded C.
From my experience with IB, and my friends' experiences with both IB and AP, all IB/AP courses are not equal; some have far more work than others. This may be the inherent nature of the subject, due to the teacher or maybe just the students' preparation level. But they all have the AP/IB label. If one genuinely cannot cope with the heavy AP/IB courses but still wants the resume boost, then pick the easier courses with lighter workloads which are still branded AP/IB. Alternatively, when there is more than one teacher teaching the course, cross a lot of fingers to get the easier teacher(s). I know last year my English teacher offered far more extra credit and a much more relaxed policy on late work than the other two English teachers, and many of my friends at other schools say they have observed the same trends. It takes a bit of talking-to-seniors and may seem unorthodox but is a pretty good last resort if need be. I only discovered I had the easy teachers after conferring with my friends about our comparative workloads, but after that they were banging down their [guidance counselor's] doors to switch.”
researcher2: “From what I have seen students' truly can't have a C or two in their AP/IB classes and hope to get into the quality schools even with the extra ‘stuff’ Jay alludes to. Why, because there are plenty of kids who get at least a B in those courses and also have the extra ‘stuff’ applying to the tier of colleges below Harvard etc.
Since so many kids are applying to college these days, and so many are taking AP/IB courses it is much more difficult for the average student to compete. Maybe a decade ago an average student who attempted the ‘college level’ course could get into a 2nd tier school with a C in such a course, but now it seems that student will need to focus on the tier 3 schools.
I do want to point out though that there is nothing wrong with those tier 3 schools, and to me that is the crux of today's issues with college.
Not only are all students pushed to take AP/IB courses, but they are all expected to attend college and then in some areas (like mine) people get obsessed about ‘name brand’ colleges and the stress is incredible for our kids. Individual interests and individual skills get pummeled, in my opinion.
We no longer recognize that teens are diverse. We no longer recognize the value of certain skills and interests.
If we stop insisting that all kids should take AP/IB courses, or that all kids have to be on the college track, we won't have to worry about the dilemma of ‘is it okay to have a C in an AP/IB course?’”
grcxx3: “I have friend whose daughter is the same age as my younger son (rising junior). They are good friends.
The mom's belief is that GPA (not course rigor) is what counts, so she has had her daughter take all regular/academic classes, no pre-AP/AP classes (which carry a 1.0 extra point). As a result, her daughter has a 4.0 average and is currently in the top 20% of her class.
Now, my younter son has 1 year in an IB/MYP school, so his main subjects came in counting as pre-AP classes. He also came in with a mix of A's and B's (and C's in Spanish...oh well...). This past year he took a mix of pre-AP and regular/academic subjects. His ending year GPA is a 3.6 and his class rank is in the 35% area.
Now, the National Honor Society GPA cutoff is 3.75. My friend's daughter was inducted into NHS in May (with my older son). If my younger son is lucky, he will make the cutoff GPA next year...otherwise, he will certainly make it by senior year.
There is VERY little likelihood of our children competing for a spot at the same school because our values/expectations are very different.....but IF they were....who would the adcom folks want? The one who made the easy As in the regular/academic classes, or the one who chose to challenge himself with more demanding classes (risking getting a B rather than an A)? Both are involved in sports....her's in soccer, mine in golf.
I would certainly hope that the willingness/desire to take more challenging courses would work in his favor."

What do you think? Let us know in the comments, or read other readers' responses in Admissions 101.

By Sarah Mimms  | July 7, 2009; 11:12 AM ET
Categories:  Admissions 101  | Tags:  AP Advanced Placement International Baccalaureate IB, Admissions 101, Jay Mathews  
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Comments

If you want to get into a good college, get good grades in hard classes.

Posted by: gotmce | July 7, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Interesting question whether to take easy classes and make good grades or challenging classes and be challenged. I'd say it depends on one's values and ambitions.

My observation from the world of business is that being good at gaming the system generally results in better career advancement and financial payoff than being good at the job. Not always, but on average (and of course being good and looking good is best). So one who wants the superficial things in life would be better off getting superficially good grades and going to a fashionable looking college, preferably one with a good dose of grade inflation.

However, as Jay often points out, studies consistently show that one's happiness is determined much more by the content of one's character than by where one went to school. Looking at it that way, a person who wants to live a happy, interesting life would probably be better off taking the challenging classes and saying to hell with the grades; let them fall where they may. Then go to a good school, continue challenging oneself, graduate, do something you love and live happily ever after.

Personally, I think we need a more uniform system in order to negate the gaming as much as possible. Grades, for example, are counterproductive. All too often they reward the worst kinds of behavior. Not just for students, but for parents, teachers and administrators as well. There is no perfect solution, but a consistent core curriculum followed by well-designed tests based on that curriculum would probably be best. Something like AP for everybody, baby.

Posted by: mhwebster | July 13, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

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