Admissions and courses – to AP or not AP (or IB…)


After the last few posts on grades some questions were swirling about how we judge courses students take, so I’ll steal liberally from my old posts and add some new stuff to create an overly verbose answer.

In answering this question, admissions officers have been infatuated with the word, “rigorous.” I believe this is because it lets us sound smarmy without actually providing useful information.
As I wrote a while back, “to start, colleges want to see a full class load, which generally means at least five academic courses. Again, academic courses are English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language, so generally admissions officers are looking for at least one of each. There are definitely students with tough loads with only four traditionally academic courses, but in general five is the preferred number and it’s not unusual to see students who take six or rarely even seven.” Ugh.
Rigorous curriculum also usually means at least some AP/IB courses (or maybe Dual Enrollment – for which you can check my post on Dual Enrollment). There is no specific number, but the competition is increasing as more schools offer these courses, those that already have them offer more, and more students take more of them.
So is it better to get an ‘A’ in a regular course or a ‘B’ in an AP course? Admissions officers (ever so smarmy) will usually say, “it’s better to get an ‘A’ in an AP course,” which probably explains a lot of the vile feelings you’re likely to have for admissions officers. The truth is that the answer changes from place to place, student to student, and day to day. You can assume, however, that at the MOST competitive institutions everyone took very rigorous courses and geneally received great grades (or they can hit the three point from outside the line, or Daddy has his name on a building). Also, bogus AP courses make admissions officers laugh (one colleague claimed to have seen AP Gym).

So – what should you take? I have a VERY controversial way to look at the question.
Part 1 – if you’re really not interested in or skilled at the topic, taking heavily advanced courses seems a bit nutty.
Part 2 – if you think a course will be so awfully difficult that not only will your grade go down in that course, but also in your other courses, you do need to think about how much that will impact your overall admission chances.

My take: first, you should try picking courses because they interest and challenge you, and not just to get into a school, since there are plenty of schools, and just maybe you should focus on the best learning for yourself. Some politicians and counselors (and especially the people who make money from the AP exams) seem to want EVERY student to take AS MANY AP COURSES AS POSSIBLE. I think that leads to a bit of insanity, and maybe a complete lack of a life. I do agree, however, that it’s great to challenge yourself when given opportunity and interest.

Finally, it’s entirely up to you whether you take the test. If you do well you may get some credits at your college, and if you do lousy it isn’t likely to impact your admission (especially senior year since those scores don’t come in until long after the admission decisions).
I apologize that there isn’t a clear answer on this one – but hey, I didn’t create the system, I just write about it -and try to make the best of it for one (phenomenal) university. Be seeing you!

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10 Responses

  1. Dean Flagel, thank you so much for making it clear that not every student must take EVERY AP course to be a competitive candidate for colleges. In the same breath, one should point out that students DO NOT have to be in every HS club or organization either. I’ve had parents bring in their HS kids into my office (I’m an admissions counselor) so that I can tell them they have to join another organization!!! I will not do that! If your son is an Eagle Scout and has tons of community service and leadership on his resume, joining a random school club during his senior year will not help him any! Students and Parents, please relax a little. If you are a hardworking student, you will go to college! Have some fun 🙂

  2. Thanks for this newest post – it cleared some things up for me.
    I just want to mention that some of the people in positions of power (i.e., administrators, cough, cough) at my school rather shamelessly try to force us into AP courses. With no honors courses offered senior year, we are often told (in one way or another) that we will have to take the AP option or risk not looking as good to a college because we took the academic course.
    I think it’s a good thing that, for whatever reason, they try to help us have a “rigorous” course load, but it always makes me sad to see people in AP classes who don’t belong there, and are clearly suffering as a result. I’ve had friends who were above the academic level, but just not ready for AP, who were pushed up to AP anyway, either to look good for colleges, or because there was no honors option. Their grades dropped, and they ended up ready to pull their hair out. Violently.
    I’ve also seen a friend break down crying in the hallway because she just couldn’t take it anymore. Too many AP classes, and too many extracurricular activities, all in the name of looking better when it came time for college applications.

  3. I was wondering, how much emphasis is placed on one’s admission essay?

  4. I think it’s also important to point out the fact that if you are not going to do well in an AP class, then you probably won’t be happy at a school that only admits students who did well in those courses. One of the kids I went to school with’s parents pushed him to stay in AP courses that were too challenging for him, just because they were obsessed with getting him into the University of Michigan. With a lot of his parents help, he did get into U of M, but failed out his sophmore year. He was humiliated and depressed, but worst of all, he was never given the opportunity to focus on what he was good at and enjoyed. Ten years later, he’s still dealing with that.

  5. My school offers free AP tests for their students, as long as they are enrolled in the class they are testing for. I’m not sure if this has any impact or not, but I’ve never been pushed into taking AP courses. I’ve actually had a really hard time getting my counselors to agree to let me in them, as have many of my AP level friends.
    What do you think of this?

  6. Emilie, I can’t speak for Dean Flagel, but maybe some schools are worse than others :). It might depend on the counselors, administration, class sizes, school policy, etc…

  7. Esays are way down the totem pole of importance, as my recent post points out – details on esays to follow!

    As for AP/IB courses – there are still some schools that put up terrbly unfair and unreasonable hurdles to prevent students from challenging themselves. This infuriates me beyond belief, most of all because it is often motivated by class or racial bias.

    In others, however, the rush to get EVERY student into college level work, and to get AS MUCH college level work as possible seems to me to be out of control. I see students every day carrying loads that are just plain nonsensical – and as a result getting less out of any of their classes.

    I’d hope that there would be some reasonable balance, but the national ranking of high schools my good firned (ok, acquaintance) Jay Matthews of the Washington Post has devised gives points to the school with the most students in AP/IB dual enrollment – so the RACE IS ON, regardless of the educational quality of those decisions.

  8. Would you say, if I am trying for a full scholarship, I would need to take all Dual-enrollment/AP classes? I will be going into the 11th grade. In my school, they offer regular classes(I would never take), Pre-AP(Honors), and AP classes(Dual-enrollment for Pre-cal).
    If I took one Pre-AP class for history, would it decrease my chance on a full or half scholarship? I am wanting to become an engineer or maybe something biomedical, so maybe a history class would not matter as much. Please answer the best you can. 🙂

    • Of course, I can’t speak for all schools – but the idea that you need all AP courses to get scholarships is just plain untrue.

      Now typically dual enrolment doesn’t mean AP – it means courses at a college or university used also for high school credit, and those are clearly unnecessary.

      Schools generally use scholarships to raise their profile, so many will award more on GPA and standardized test scores than on your course load, unlike admissions where courseload is a much more significant factor.

  9. I’m a hardworking student with a 4.0+ GPA in high school, Salutatorian etc. I was awarded a (one fifth of tuition) scholarship in college to maintain a 2.5 GPA. Since entering college, I have kept and maintained Dean’s List and a 3.8+ for two years, but they won’t award me any more money…

    Why, and maybe how do I shout to them that I am working this hard and I know deserve more than that?

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