Is AP Coursework As Important As It Used To Be?

We explore the outdated arguments for enrolling in AP classes and how their role in college prep has changed.

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A hearty congratulations to high schoolers everywhere for surviving AP season!

Over the past three weeks, an estimated 2.8 million students sat for Advanced Placement exams across the country, continuing a long streak of approximately 5% annual growth. This tremendous undertaking required hundreds of thousands of teachers, a small forest’s worth of test papers and a $93 fee per exam. The “nonprofit” College Board secured hundreds of millions in revenue, but what did the participating students gain? Not as much as you might think.

Here are three common arguments for AP classes that don’t hold up to close scrutiny:

1) “You’ll learn more in an AP class.”

It’s reasonable to expect that a more advanced course would result in improved academic performance. But according to a recent article from NPR Ed, the research doesn’t support this notion. AP students certainly do better than non-AP students on other standardized tests and in college, but it’s not clear that the AP program is responsible for this performance gap. AP students are more likely to have privileged backgrounds and to have done well in earlier grades, and it’s possible they would excel even without the test. The simple truth: There hasn’t been enough research to be sure.

However, there is one thing thing we DO know. Any benefit students get from AP classes likely comes not from the curriculum but from exposure to ambitious, college-bound peers. This means that even a student without access to AP classes could still realize a similar boost in academic performance by joining academically focused extracurriculars, like a debate club or the school newspaper.


>>> Recommended Reading: AP Courses vs. IB Programs: What’s The Difference?


2) “You’ll receive college credit for taking AP classes.”

Ironically, the quality schools that AP students are most likely to target are least likely to offer college credit for AP classes. The College Board does not keep data on how many colleges accept test scores in lieu of coursework, but the number appears to be in rapid decline. Decisions about whether or not to accept high school courses often fall to undergraduate department heads, who strongly believe that their courses are better than those offered at high schools. As the number of AP students increases, professors at Ivy plus universities face an uncomfortable predicament: If they accept AP credit, there might not be enough students to fill their own introductory lectures.

Universities have responded by dramatically upping credit requirements. Harvard accepts only 5s; Columbia and Stanford will accept 4s in some cases, but rarely grant course exemptions. Even schools that “accept” advanced placements have devalued them, often allowing students to skip only remedial courses that they would have been able to place out of anyway. These exemptions are particularly useless within a student’s major: The ability to skip Physics for Poets is meaningless to a future physicist, who would have to take a higher-level introductory course anyway.

3) “Taking AP classes will help you get accepted into college.”

The more people take AP tests, the less true this statement is. The time when taking AP classes would vault your application to the front of the line has long passed–every competitive application at elite universities is peppered with Advanced Placement coursework.

That being said, while taking AP classes alone won’t get you into an elite university, avoiding them altogether can hurt your application. How?

The other applicants you’re up against have without a doubt enrolled in AP classes, and if you haven’t, you may be sending a message to the admissions committee that says a) you didn’t do enough research and were unaware of the option, or worse yet, b) you simply were not motivated enough to challenge yourself.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we strongly recommend taking Advanced Placement classes–even if they offer few real-world benefits. But a word to the wise… don’t take too many!

Dividing one’s attention over many exams is detrimental to GPAs and test scores, both of which are more important than quantity of APs to college admissions committee members. Students should instead approach Advanced Placement like they will their undergraduate coursework, choosing a field or two to “major” in and achieving exceptional grades in those specific areas. From a college admissions perspective, doing well is far more important than doing a lot.

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