Man walks into his home after a hard day’s work. Sees his young son in the next room looking crestfallen.
“What’s the matter?” the father asks. The son hands him his report card.
Father looks it over and exclaims, “What? Four F’s and a D? How did this happen?”
Son stares at the floor and says… “I guess I spent too much time on one subject.”
Nothing like this will ever happen to a high achieving student bound for a top-tier college, unless, of course, the report card has four A’s and a B. And the B might be okay if it was in an Advanced Placement (AP) course. AP courses are highly regarded for their well-known rigor. Many high schools give AP courses an additional grading point, so you can add a 5.0 to your GPA if you get an A. So it’s possible that the B that you earned in an AP course, which would add a 4.0 to your GPA, would enable you to maintain your overall 4.0 GPA.
The College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT exam, initiated the AP program in the middle of the last century. AP classes are college-level courses that are taught in most American high schools. Their purpose is to enable students to prove that they’re capable of doing college work. An AP course is designed to emulate the breadth and depth of a college’s introductory course, for example, American History 101. The student experiences the more rigorous standards that they’ll need to adhere to in college. AP classes enable them to anticipate the challenges that await them in the next stage of their education.
There are currently 38 AP courses available from the College Board, though not every high school offers AP courses and not every school that does offers all of them. The College Board provides high schools with the curriculum for these classes and administers AP exams to students each May. Students who receive a score of 3, 4, or 5 out of 5 on an AP exam may be eligible to receive college credit for that course, depending on the policies of the college. More than 4,200 colleges and universities give credit for good scores on AP exams. You may be able to skip some introductory courses at your college and free up credits to take more in-depth courses in your major. It’s possible that a student who has taken several AP courses in high school can finish their bachelor’s degree a semester early.
AP scores are a known quantity recognizable by the admission officers of Ivy League and other top-tier institutions. Many colleges depend on the AP designation on a transcript to help them evaluate how hard students push themselves. If a school offers multiple AP classes, colleges take note of how many of them an applicant takes. This serves as an indication of the student’s willingness and ability to undertake difficult college-level work.
AP courses continue to be a key element of the curriculum for a great many high schools, public and private, throughout the United States. Not all students who take an AP course also take an AP exam for it. Students may take an AP exam without having taken the AP course and if they do well on it, it has the same value in admissions as having done both.
From 2007 to 2017, the number of high school graduates who took at least one AP exam rose 70%, to 1.2 million. The program has spread from 16,500 high schools in the 2006-2007 school year to 22,000 last year.
Despite the pervasiveness of AP classes as a tool to evaluate applicants on a level playing field, there has been a mini-trend away from AP by a number of elite private high schools. Recently, seven private schools in the Washington, DC area announced that they were phasing out their AP programs. These seven schools are among the best schools in the DC area and include Georgetown Day, Holton-Arms, Landon, National Cathedral, Potomac, St. Albans, and Sidwell Friends. Their action demonstrates that the anti-AP trend in still alive despite the fact that only one-half of 1% of high schools have dropped AP courses in the last decade.
It’s noteworthy that there are several elite private high schools in the Washington area with equally high academic reputations that are not in the anti-AP cadre. These include, among others, Gonzaga, Georgetown Prep, St. Johns, Holton Arms, Madeira, and Landon. Either they weren’t invited for some reason or they were and declined.
The rationale for the action of the seven schools, as stated in a joint letter to the Washington Post by the head administrators of the schools, is, “…the truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses, which stress breadth over depth. Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer courses that are foundational, allow for authentic engagement with the world and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests.”
Many high school and college administrators, AP teachers, and admissions counselors and consultants found this assessment objectionable. Their comments range far and wide and can’t even be summarized here. Suffice it to say that the general attitude is that these seven schools can drop AP because there will be no negative impact on the ability of their students to gain admission to the best institutions.The vast majority of high schools in the U.S can’t drop AP programs as easily as these seven.
A recent story in the Washington Post quotes Michael Grill of Wakefield High School in Arlington, VA, an AP government teacher, as saying, “When administrators can trade on the cachet of their school’s reputation to help get their students into college, it’s really not that bold nor courageous to abandon a metric that can contribute to leveling the playing field.”
According to the Post, admissions officials from 13 universities including Yale, Michigan, Stanford and UCLA, have rejected the seven school’s contention that AP courses are of “diminished significance.”Over the past half-century, colleges have found AP, International Baccalaureate, and Cambridge (two programs similar to AP with the same general purpose) to be robust tools by which to evaluate high school students – 2.7 million of them in 2017 alone. These included many exceptional students who didn’t attend elite private high schools.
IvySelect advocates an aggressive approach to AP courses. Our general rule-of-thumb is that you should take three or four AP classes in junior year and four or five in senior year, although this recommendation varies according to circumstances. We also advise that you be careful not to exceed your ability to produce good results. AP courses can hurt you as well as help you if they bring down your GPA significantly. A prime example of the value of the expertise of your IvySelect consultant is their guidance on the most appropriate AP course load for you.