My son will be a HS Junior in the fall. He is currently taking AP World History, Honors Algebra II. He recently took the AP test and we are waiting for his scores. This year has been really tough on him as far as the workload is concerned. He is slated to take AP American History, Honors Biology, and another Honors math. Does it seem that AP really makes a difference when colleges look at a student’s app? Is it worth the extra work for him, or is he better to add Honors English to his class schedule and just take the “regular” History course?
Just trying to decide what is better as far as colleges are concerned. Any input you can offer would be greatly appreciated.
Mom from Colorado
This is a common dilemma—how to balance challenging academic courses with academic achievement and all of the other demands on students’ time and sanity. Unfortunately, there isn’t one clear-cut answer to this problem. Like most college planning dilemmas, the answer depends on the personality and abilities of each student. Let’s look at the relevant factors, so you can make a decision that’s right for your family.
We’ve all heard that universities want students to show an interest in learning and a willingness to challenge themselves academically. This means that where available and when appropriate, students should take AP, IB, or other honors level coursework.
Where available! Students are evaluated based on the opportunities available to them. Some students have the opportunity to take a full schedule of AP courses junior and senior year, others may be limited to two AP courses per year by school policy, and others may attend schools that do not have any AP, IB, or honors courses. Students should thrive where they are.
When appropriate! Not all students are advanced in all academic areas. Some excel in math and science, but not English and history and vice versa. One student may be happy and successful in AP Calculus and AP Physics, but feel behind and buried in work in AP Literature. Here is where parents and students have to have clear communication and trust. Wanting to drop an AP class because it genuinely is too difficult is one thing; wanting an extra off-period or less homework and more video game time is another.
The question is so common it is a cliché in college admissions offices: “Is it better to get a B in an AP class or an A in a regular class?” And the answer from admissions officers is always the same; “It is better to get an A in an AP class.” Grades matter in college admission.
Whether taking regular or advanced level courses, students need to demonstrate academic success, usually measured by their grades. A’s are great; B’s are good, and C’s are ok. D’s and F’s raise red flags. A D in an AP class is still a D and will not help a student’s overall record. Students in advanced courses are expected to make the grade just as they would in a regular class.
Of course, the student interested in becoming valedictorian or applying to the most highly selective colleges will usually have all A’s and maybe one or two B’s over the course of four years. B’s and C’s can be seen as problems in the realm of highly selective admissions.
You need to determine what level of academic success is appropriate. Are you looking at a potential Ivy League student or a talented student who will likely attend a good college, but not one of the most competitive institutions?
Colleges are looking for individuals with different strengths, talents, and interests. Keep this in mind when selecting high school courses. The student who loves AP Music Theory may not love (or excel in) AP Physics or AP French Literature. Especially when it comes to elective courses, let personal interests play a part in the decision process.
Colleges also expect students to demonstrate and develop these interests by participating in extracurricular activities, community service, or work. The student who has focused on taking AP classes to the exclusion of other activities may regret that decision.
Balance and Sanity
Finally, consider issues of balance and sanity. Another AP class isn’t worth it if the result is a burnt-out, stressed-out teenager who is loosing self-confidence every week. There is no exact formula to this. Some students can easily balance a full schedule of AP courses and still have time and energy for extracurricular activities, family, and sleep. But most students have a limit to the number of advanced classes they can take at one time.
So the answer to the question is take all the factors into consideration, know your child and his abilities, and understand that universities will consider that one extra AP class differently depending on the selective nature of their institution’s admissions.