How students can survive the AP course workload

Jay Mathews
Columnist March 4, 2012

In a column for the Local Living section last month, I discussed what I called five bad ideas about college admissions, including “the more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and tests, the better.”

I wrote that “selective colleges expect applicants to enroll in three to five AP, IB or similar college-level courses and take the final exams. If you like AP, taking 12 of them won’t hurt you but confers no advantage over a classmate who took just four and did well on the exams.”

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

This is true about selective colleges where admission is mostly luck, but I missed something.

I should have warned students who don’t take as many APs or IBs as their high school classmates that they may be at a disadvantage when applying to big state universities and other colleges that don’t have much time to review each application.

So how does a student avoid taking difficult AP courses he or she doesn’t want or need just to be competitive?

It requires the right strategy and attitude, both hard to achieve.

The number of high school students taking AP, IB, Advanced International Certificate of Education and local college courses has been rising. College admissions officers believe those courses prepare students better than regular high school courses for higher education. They tell applicants that if their high schools have such courses, they should take them. The admissions people add that if your school only offers five AP courses, they don’t expect you to have as many on your transcript as a student at a school that offers 25. But you weaken your case if your AP course taking is not in step with classmates applying to your favorite college.

Jodi Siegel, a Potomac educational consultant, shared with me her AP insights.

If a student’s classmates “take an average of six or seven APs and this student has taken three or four,” she said, “in all likelihood that student’s level or rigor will appear less impressive.” This is clear, she said, from admission decisions at schools such as the University of Maryland.

The Washington area and other affluent regions have many public and private high schools with two dozen or more AP or IB courses. This is hard on students proficient in only a few of the subjects available.

Marcia Hunt, former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), is director of college counseling at Pine Crest, a private school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “For the most competitive colleges in the country, our typical admitted student will have taken at least nine or 10 AP courses,” she said.

“It is very rare for an unhooked kid [meaning someone without some special talent or a family connection to the college] to have fewer and be admitted to the most selective colleges,” she said.

“Two kids from the same school, one with four APs and one with eight, would be judged differently, all things being equal,” said Bruce J. Jones, associate director of admission for Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Taking an AP course that is too difficult for you and getting a bad grade doesn’t help when applying to top-ranked colleges.

The secret to surviving this competition is to take only college-level courses that match your academic strengths, and not so many that you have no time for one or two extra curricular activities that reveal your nonacademic passions — a must on any college application. David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for NACAC, said piling up AP courses does count with some colleges, but it is hard to tell which ones and research is lacking.

The healthy attitude is to recognize that you can find a good college even if you have only a few APs. As many successful adults will tell you, it is what you do at the college, not the college itself, that matters.

To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to postlocal.com.

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