Many top-notch students and parents choose to load up on the AP classes because they have heard that’s what it takes to get into college; AP is, after all, the standard bearer of rigor on the high school transcript.
But here’s the dilemma: not all those APs are going to transfer as college credit. That’s fact. APs are more challenging, so the risks of getting a B or a C are greater. And in order to get a chance at college credit, a student must take and pass the AP exam: passing the class is not enough. So the question is, are AP classes “worth it”? What’s really important to a college?
It’s been estimated, based on surveys of admissions officers at different institutions across the country, that approximately 75% of the admissions decision is based on three things: GPA (especially junior year), rigor of schedule, and standardized test scores (SAT or ACT). With this in mind, the need to choose classes that demonstrate your willingness to challenge yourself in high school becomes clear. It’s amongst the most important ways you can put together a strong application. But rigor is different for everyone.
One argument for taking AP classes is that you get an extra boost in your GPA (at most schools) which can propel you forward in class rank. However, some may be quick to point out that the college may not even consider your weighted GPA, and awards little credit to your class rank (unless you are valedictorian or top ten). This is true. Colleges are going to recalculate your GPA according to their own system, but GPA is not the whole picture. You cannot look at GPA without also looking at the rigor reflected by that GPA. These two pieces of the puzzle are inherently tied together, and for good reason.
The student who makes all As in “regular” classes is not impressive (in this facet alone). Colleges view that student as one who should have been in classes the next level up, working harder and learning more, even if that means he/she gets a B. B’s are fine. I like Bs. So do colleges.
On the flip side, the student who is in all APs but taking home a couple Cs is likely a student who is overextended. That student gives the admissions officer pause. “Will this student be able to handle classes here at this college?” one might think, and then place your application in the “no” stack.
So the recommendation as to whether those AP classes are worth it or not is an individual one. There’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s about how much your student can handle and what his or her interests are. It’s okay, even for Stanford, to choose to take AP classes just in Literature and Government, while taking standard classes in the other subjects. If those are your strengths and that’s all you can handle, fine! Go that route.
GPAs, classes, and test scores are (fortunately) not the whole picture. There’s so much more. In fact, at the most competitive colleges, what’s behind the numbers is often what matters most. So after you have chosen your classes based on what’s the best fit for you, my advice is to figure out what else you have to offer. What are your skills? How can you use those skills to be innovative? Make something that wasn’t there before. Help solve a problem in your community. Go get some work experience in a field that interests you, then use that knowledge for good. Those are the things colleges really want to see, but they are going to look at the numbers (GPAs, SATs) first.
Read more about the “AP Dilemma”
- NYT: Dartmouth Stops Credits for Excelling on A.P. Test
- HuffPo: AP Exams Are the Biggest Scam in American Education (OPINION)
- Stanford News: Are AP courses worth the effort? An interview with Stanford education expert Denise Pope