Last year, I wrote a piece entitled “Why we wrongly freak out over AP.” Three to five Advanced Placement courses in high school would satisfy most selective colleges, I said: “Taking six, seven, eight or 20 AP courses will almost never make you more attractive to those colleges that reject more students than they accept.”
One Fairfax County father, though, told me his sophomore daughter wanted to go to the University of Virginia, but to do that, someone in authority at her high school said that she had to take about nine or 10 APs.
According to the father, the adviser said “selective colleges want to see applicants take the most challenging courses at their high school, which means AP.” That is true, but it does not mean you have to take that many, unless you groove on stress.
Many parents and students, and some educators, share the father’s concern.
Introductory college courses such as AP, International Baccalaureate and the Advanced International Certificate of Education have done much to improve U.S. high schools in the past 30 years. They allow teachers to raise instruction, even for average students, to a level that prepares them for the rigors of college, as few high school courses do. Since the final exams in these programs are written and graded by independent experts, any attempt to dumb down an AP, IB or AICE course produces an embarrassing and revealing result: high grades from the teacher but failing marks on the exam, the results of which arrive after school is over.
For most students applying to selective colleges from most high schools, taking three to five AP, IB or AICE courses are fine. If they come from a school with no or few such courses, admissions officers find other ways to gauge readiness. Students applying to the vast majority of schools will find those colleges delighted to see any APs.
Selective colleges get far more applicants with strong APs and other signs of academic readiness than they have room to accept. From that group, they pick the ones with the deepest extracurriculars, warmest recommendations, best essays and most unusual family backgrounds.
But in some very high-performing high schools in the Washington region, many students still will take more AP, IB and AICE courses than they need, often because it makes them feel more secure. Because selective colleges look closely at how applicants from the same school compare with each other, the Fairfax County father’s child needs to keep up with other U-Va. aspirants in her class.
That does not mean she has to take nine or 10 APs.
“Most admitted students from Fairfax County have not taken nine to 10 AP courses over their high school careers,” U-Va. dean of admission Gregory Roberts told me. “That would be a very, very demanding course schedule for a high school student.”
Shirley Bloomquist, a Great Falls-based educational consultant, has an encyclopedic grasp of U-Va. admissions. She used to be the guidance director at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Alexandria, which sends more students to U-Va. than any other single selective college in the country receives from any high school. She said students accepted at U-Va. these days “will have generally taken seven or more AP courses in no particular order.”
The daughter of the Fairfax County father trying to figure this out will be in that category easily. It turns out her real problem is that, against the school advice she is hearing, she would prefer to take honors U.S. history next year rather than AP U.S. history. She likes science and already will be taking APs in biology, physics, psychology and English language next year.
“Would that be bad?” her father asked. No, it would not. If you too are confused about the admission system, e-mail me. His daughter’s preferred schedule is still demanding and, compared with what happens at most schools, astonishing. If U-Va. doesn’t take her, other great colleges will.