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APs: Not Worthwhile for Everyone

Advanced Placement: two words that, for many, inspire feelings of dread and stir up memories of sleepless nights. Although time-consuming and notoriously difficult, Advanced Placement (AP) courses offer a unique opportunity for high school students to push themselves with challenging college-level material. Additionally, students taking APs can potentially chip away at some general education credits prior to even starting in higher education, depending on the college they attend and their performance on their AP exams in May.

Aside from the prospect of earning college credit, colleges seem to view success in APs as an indication of potential to succeed in college. For this reason, it is generally thought that taking more of these rigorous APs gives students a competitive edge in the hectic, dubious scramble for a finite number of highly sought-after acceptance letters from selective universities.

As a result, many have adopted a very reductive view of what is realistically a complex and messy college admissions situation: many believe more APs directly correlate with better odds of getting those coveted letters from the Stanfords and Princetons of the world in their mailboxes. That very well may be the case to a certain extent, but there are several additional factors that come into play that invalidate this view as all-encompassing.

It seems as if APs are lauded as a panacea for all students because of this perception that they miraculously increase students’ odds of acceptance, when in reality, not all students are going to greatly benefit from them, some aren’t well-suited for certain classes, not everyone wants to take on the work associated with them, and they are simply unenjoyable for some.

Bleak as it sounds, selective universities are only getting more selective as the years progress. Research from Pew Research Center suggests that the percentage of U.S. colleges admitting under 10% of their applicants in 2017 reached 1.2%, which is up from just 0.4% in 2002. These trends of hyper-selectivity are the case for the most elite of U.S. universities. So for those aspiring to get into schools with single digit acceptance rates, it might make sense to load up on the APs, now more than ever.
However, they should be advised that at this intense level of competition, taking all AP classes possible is practically a prerequisite to being even remotely competitive at these types of schools. On top of an impressive course load, competitive applicants at upper-echelon universities have to do some pretty impressive things outside of academics to have a legitimate chance of being accepted, at least generally speaking. AP courses may help them to get accepted to top-tier universities, but probably aren’t enough on their own.

Conversely, some—and probably most—students aren’t adamant on attending an Ivy League-caliber school. The same research from Pew suggests that, in 2017, more than half of all colleges in the nation admitted two-thirds or more of their applicant pool. On the flip side, only 19.7% of U.S. colleges admitted 49.9% or below of their applicants. It makes less sense for these students to absolutely inundate themselves with APs with the intent to increase their competitiveness in the eyes of admissions counselors, given that a substantial majority of schools are not all that competitive to begin with.

Perhaps it would be more advisable for students hoping to be accepted to more moderately selective colleges to take just a handful of these courses in subjects they are interested in or those related to their career aspirations. Those wanting to get a jump start on GE requirements also have good reason to enroll in APs, as they can waive some credit requirements with their passed AP tests. This is likely to be a cost-effective investment, seeing as how an AP test costs around $100 yet can reduce costs for much steeper tuition costs in college.

But for those headed for, say, community college or vocational schools, it’s almost definitely not worthwhile to overload on APs, at least for admissions purposes. Furthermore, it would be obviously ill-advised to suggest that a student who struggles to grasp advanced concepts in mathematics at a regular pace, let alone at an accelerated pace, to enroll in AP Calculus. For students already burdened with jobs or time consuming extracurriculars, adding too many advanced classes to that burden is less than reasonable, as well.

AP courses have the potential to offer valuable opportunities for those who take them. However, it makes little practical sense to prescribe them indiscriminately to all students, regardless of their aspirations and aptitudes, as some parents, college counselors, peers and students themselves have a tendency to do.

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