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Admissions 101: To Take or Not to Take AP and IB

Over at Admissions 101, Jay Mathews is discussing the answer to a prickly question:

The Question:

Is it better for college admissions to take an IB or AP class and receive a C or D or take a standard class and receive an A or B? Our office is decidedly split on this matter. The majority of us feel that it is better to make the grade since GPA is the first cut often for college admissions. We usually advise our students that if they are going to take an IB or AP class they need to get an A or B in the class, and to take an IB or AP class in their strength area.

My Answer:

The high school educators and college admissions officers I know best have convinced me that EVERY student going to college should take at least one college-level course and exam in high school. AP, IB or Cambridge are the best in my view, although a dual enrollment course and test given by the staff of a local college is also good. Students need that taste of college trauma to be able to make a smooth transition their freshman year.
When you consider actual situations, the threat of a bad grade from taking AP or IB fades away. A student strong enough to have a chance of admission to a selective college, the only kind that pays close attention to relative GPAs of their applicants, will be strong enough a student to get a decent grade in an AP or IB class, and a decent score on the exam. If they do NOT get a good grade in the course or the exam, then they are, almost by definition, not strong enough to compete with other students trying to get into those selective colleges. Their SAT or ACT score will show that, even if they don't take AP or IB, and I suspect their overall GPA even without AP or IB will not be that great. If you know of a straight-A, 2100 SAT student who did poorly in an AP course, let me know, and I will revise my opinion. But I have never encountered such a student in 20 years of looking at these issues.
So what of the vast majority of high school students who do NOT apply to selective colleges. In their case, whatever grade they get in the AP or IB course and test, the admissions departments of the colleges they apply to will be impressed to see they have tested themselves against one of the most demanding courses in their school. If the grade is bad, but their regular grades are decent, those admissions people will admit them before other students with decent regular grades but no AP. They have proved themselves willing to take on an academic challenge, which is what college is all about.
Those admissions people also know that we have data now showing that AP students who get scores as low as a two on AP exams do better in college than students who did not take AP. If a student finds the AP challenge scary, then there is no reason they should take five or six AP courses. Just one will be fine.
But if they want to get into the most selective colleges, they are going to have to take at least three APs or IBs, and work hard to make sure the grades are decent. They will hurt their chances if they get bad grades in those courses, but they will hurt them just as much if they don't take AP at all. The admissions officers at our most selective colleges place very high value on their applicants having taken the most challenging courses available at their high schools. If a student at an AP school takes no APs, they will notice.
It is, of course, a good idea as you say to take APs in your strongest subjects. But you should not avoid AP, IB or Cambridge altogether. That approach makes no sense in the real world of admissions.

Join the discussion.

By Washington Post Editors  | August 25, 2009; 3:37 PM ET
Categories:  Admissions 101  | Tags:  AP, IB, college admissions  
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