A growing trend in high schools across America and globally is the endorsement of Advanced Placement (AP) courses as integral to student success at the collegiate level and beyond. Available in 33 different content areas, AP courses aim to provide ambitious and intellectually capable students with a more rigorous and uniform curriculum than a typical high school course-load.
AP courses feature large quantities of reading and writing, with a focus on critical thinking. They seek to mimic the type of assessments and higher-order skills students will encounter in college. They require significantly more work, independent learning, organization and dedication than regular courses. The payoff for a student’s hard work is two-fold: a chance to earn college credits with a high score on the final AP Exam, and the prestige of listing their enrollment in such courses on résumés and college applications. Striking a balance between these two aspects is essential to all students, especially those applying to American universities from abroad.
Approximately 1.8 million American students were enrolled in AP courses in 2010. If the former members of the AP European History classes I taught were any indication, then many of those 1.8 million enroll in AP courses for one of two reasons. Firstly, a number of students I have taught genuinely relished the rigors of the AP curriculum. Students like these thrive upon the challenging atmosphere and expect that the skills they acquire will pay dividends throughout their life. Frankly, many former students from this group seemed indifferent to their final test scores and college credit.
Second, another faction of students concentrates on a much more concrete objective: AP courses as a springboard to college admissions and credit. These students do still value the educational experience itself, but as secondary to how their AP performance will improve their value in the eyes of college admissions boards. This parallels the mentality of many secondary schools. The more students enrolled in AP courses, the greater the reputation of the school. Further, high test scores and high percentages of college acceptances (especially to elite universities) are additional feathers in the cap. The danger here is a “quantity over quality” approach. An open-door policy to students into AP-level courses may be in the best interest of a school, but can result in a student struggling with work far above his or her abilities.
It is a reality that college admissions boards look favorably upon a demanding high school course-load. Students who have proven their ability to succeed in the most challenging of academic environments — whether AP, International Baccalaureate or actual college courses — are prized by the most elite of universities. However, this “ability to succeed” should be weighed when determining how many AP courses one should undertake. A student who has received A’s and scored “5’s” on a handful of AP courses and exams will have a much more impressive transcript than one who has completed a plethora of AP courses but with merely mediocre grades. Students should strive for the most rigorous curriculum they can successfully complete. By enrolling in AP courses in subjects of strength and interest, students can ensure this.
From my experiences as both a former AP student and instructor, this requires the attention of secondary school administrators and teachers, students and parents, and the educational community at large. Whatever the particular vision schools embrace for their students, a common element should be balance: balance on the part of students in viewing AP courses as privileged learning opportunities with inherent long-term benefits that should not be overlooked for the short-term rewards they might find on applications. School administrators need balance in making these opportunities readily available to those students who exhibit both a zeal and aptitude for the subject. A precarious balancing act is needed from teachers, to prepare their students above adequately for the AP Exam while also promoting a forward-thinking and progressive learning environment. Yes, AP courses can ease a student’s transition into the college of their choice and yes, they should be catalysts for lifelong learning. What all interested parties should consider is the best way to synthesize these concepts.