How Good are Advanced Placement (AP) Courses? Are They Worth Taking?

Several recent client questions have centered upon the value of Advanced Placement (AP) tests and their importance in the college admissions process.

Conventional wisdom holds that AP courses are excellent preparation for college. They are considered to be rigorous. The general idea is that they are the equivalent of college-level, introductory survey courses.

(The Advanced Placement program, created by the College Board, does have its critics who decry the amount of rote memorization or brute calculation that the exams tend to emphasize. I do not necessarily disagree with these critiques. For today’s purposes, however, I’m going to set aside these criticisms.)

The second value of the AP program is that the tests provide a norm. Or a standard. A score on the AP test is a relatively accurate assessment of a student’s relative performance. The tests themselves may not be perfect; but a student’s score does provide admissions officers (among others) to usefully compare a student’s abilities with those of his peers across the country.

So much for the test. What is the value of an AP course?

In my opinion, the value of an AP course can be measured only by how well the course prepares students to take the AP test. If most students in the said course pass the test, the course must be good. If the majority fail the exam, the course is not all that great.

Across the country, the curriculum for an AP course is consistent: the aim is to “teach to the test.” (I hear the criticisms, but I’m ignoring them.)

So if the curriculum is held constant, what’s the variable?

We have only two possible answers. Either we blame the students or we blame the teacher.

I work on a pro bono basis for several students at an inner-city high school in Denver. One of my students is ranked second in her class of over 500 students. Academically, she is a stand-out. She is beloved by administrators, teachers, and peers. She has been singled out as a rare talent in a school with more than its fair share of problems.

She is enrolled in AP classes. And she even got to take one during her sophomore year.

She received a score of 1 out of 5 on the AP test.

How did that happen?

And whose fault is it? Perhaps students at this school are simply not as bright as the students across town in the wealthy suburbs, where it’s relatively routine for students to score 4 or 5 on the same test. Perhaps this poor girl simply doesn’t have the same preparation, so there is no way she—or any of her peers at this school—could perform on the same level as her peers across the city boundary.

Or is it the teacher? Is it that the teacher of this class in this school does not have the content expertise or the teaching skills to push the students hard enough and far enough to pass the test? How many inner-city high schools are full of Jaime Escalantes, who “stand and deliver” advanced calculus to black and brown students? (Answer: precious few.)

Or, is this young girl’s failure on the AP test a symptom of something more insidious at work in our educational system? It is simply the culture of low expectations that allows us to offer a course with an AP label, and then neglect to push poorer, browner students in the same way we push their richer, whiter peers?

I have my opinions. But for now, I want to focus on what parents can and should be asking about their students’ AP courses.

To the question, “are AP courses valuable?” my answer is “absolutely.” But the questions should not stop there. Parents should be asking administrators and teachers some better, tougher questions about those AP courses.

For example:

  1. How long has this course been taught in this school?
  2. How long has this teacher been teaching this course?
  3. Has the teacher received special training to teach this course? If so, what kind of training, and from whom?
  4. Are students who take the course required to sit for the AP exam? If not, why not?
  5. What percentage of those who take the course attempt the test?
  6. What is the teacher’s pass rate? If the teacher taught the course at a different school, what was his or her pass rate there?
  7. Of those who passed, how many received a 4 or 5 on the test?
  8. Are the teacher’s grades for the course related, in any way, to anticipated performance on the AP test?
  9. What sort of assessments does the teacher use in the course? How similar are those assessments to the actual AP tests?
  10. How much is writing emphasized in this AP course? (Many of the tests require substantial writing, not just multiple choice questions.)

These sorts of questions will help you better assess the value of a particular AP course at a particular school.

If you find that the answers to these questions are unsatisfactory, there might actually be better options for your college-bound student. Perhaps one of the best is to seek out dual enrollment options at a local college or community college, where your student can take a bona fide college course—at no cost in most states—and be guaranteed of receiving college credit if the student passes the course.

As with most everything else in this world, you cannot judge something merely by its label. The AP brand is generally pretty good. But you’d better look carefully at that individual course before you encourage your student to sign up.

Mark Montgomery
Independent College Counseling

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Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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56 Comments

  1. I agree with the post, however, I think that students should not eliminate choosing an AP course because the course taught at the school is unsatisfactory. If the student has his own drive to achieve or he loves the subject, he can sometimes learn the material on his own, even if the teacher isn’t as helpful. In this case, the AP course will look fabulous on the transcript and the student can perform well on the exam.

  2. The reality of AP is a bit more complex than your set of questions. For example, in my first year of teaching AP, I had a 100% pass rate. Am I a brilliant teacher? No, my students were well prepared as underclassmen by my colleagues. I was simply competent enough to run with that good base.

    Although I do some test prep, my exams do not resemble the AP exam. I also do not tie grades to anticipated scores or, for that matter, practice tests. AP Lit is a skills test, but the course itself is content-based, so they don’t align as neatly.

    All AP teachers must have at least 18 graduate credits in their subject area (not education). We must also submit a syllabus to be approved by The College Board. This syllabus follows the teacher. Most AP teachers also must attend the CB seminars.

    Community college courses are a good option, but AP is still almost always a better option than the “regular” high school course. Even if the student doesn’t score the 3, he or she will still have had better preparation for college.

  3. Dear Lightlyseasoned,
    First, thanks for commenting on my site. I’m much obliged.

    I concede your points, though I think you are probably being too modest about your teaching abilities. You are right that the “raw material” that your students enter the classroom with makes a difference.

    However, the sad fact is that there are many AP teachers with College Board-approved syllabi who have the proper number of credit hours who are absolutely abysmal in their ability to prepare students adequately for the AP tests. My guess is that you have met some of these teachers in your career.

    I also mourn the fact that some of the students I work with in an inner city high school are taking AP courses (from approved teachers using approved syllabi) and getting only a “1” on the test.

    Are these students stupid? Are they incapable of making a 5 on the test?

    If you are saying that it is all a matter of preparation long before a student enters that AP classroom, and that poorly prepared students cannot hope to be competitive with their peers, aren’t we lying to them that the course they will take at this inner city school is “proof” that they are ready for college?

    My point is that your well-prepared students would do just fine with or without you. But my poorly-prepared students might–just might–have a better chance of passing the exam if you were their teacher.

    Thanks again for visiting my blog.

  4. I am in Florida and the advice that I have received from the guidance counselors of my two sons is that AP courses are accepted nationwide, but the dual enrollment courses are usually only accepted by other Florida universities. Because of this, I have chosen to have my sons take AP classes. Do you agree with this statement?

  5. Greetings, and thanks for visiting my blog. Your question is an excellent one.

    The advice you are receiving from your guidance counselors in Florida is mostly incorrect. Briefly and to the point, I contacted two state universities in Colorado who told me they would gladly accept PSEO credits from a community college in Florida, as long as the courses were general in nature and the student received a grade of C- or better. I also learned at that in Colorado, at least, there is NO LIMIT to the number of credits that may be transferred—as long as they were all earned before the date of graduation from high school.

    Compare this with the AP, which offers a high-pressure curriculum and a high stakes test, and college will only offer credit if the student achieves a requisite score (often a 4 or 5).

    Based on this information, I would guess that most public universities in the US would transfer PSEO credits from Florida.

    Private colleges and universities are another matter. Some will grant “advanced standing” to students with PSEO credits or AP credits. Some will waive prerequisites. The policies will vary depending (to a large degree) on the selectivity of the college: the more selective, the less likely the institution is to grant advanced standing. Most, however, will use either PSEO or AP courses to waive prerequisites.

    So here is the dirty secret: it is in some ways better to do use PSEO options if you want to reduced the total cost of college at a public university. As long as the student earns a decent grade (the minimium is C- in Colorado), the student can transfer the credit into that public university. Guaranteed. No questions asked.

    But the AP is more of a roll of the dice. Take the course. Get a grade. Maybe pass the test. Maybe pass it with a high enough score to possible get credits—if the college or university will accept them.

    So dollar for dollar, the PSEO option is the better deal.

    However, one caveat. Colleges are looking for rigor. They want to know that your student took the most rigorous courses possible, and achieved the highest possible levels of proficiency and knowledge. In some cases, I’d prefer that my own children take a course with an excellent AP teacher who has a terrific track record of getting his or students to get scores of 5 on the AP test, rather than take a lackluster community college course that is not all that rigorous or at an advanced intellectual level.

    So it depends on your aims. If you want to save money, go the PSEO route, because it is more of a sure thing. If you want to prepare your child for the most selective colleges in the United States, then you might want to do some more investigating and figure out which option(s) will provide your student with the greatest intellectual challenges and opportunities.

    I hope this answers your question. Thanks again for visiting my blog, and please let me know if I can be of any further assistance.

  6. I think the points you make are not limited to inner-city schools and people of color. I am caucasian as are my two boys and we are in a very typical middle class school in Northern California. My son took two AP classes last year during his sophomore year and had even had an A in AP Statistics, but scored a 1 on the test. The AP Euro experience was a bit different – he had a B in the class and scored a 2 on the test probably as the result of the DBQ – I think he really knew the topics well. He also has taken 3 courses now at the local community college – Italian 1 and 2 during his freshman & sophmore year and Trigonometry this summer between 10th and 11th grade. Students are not allowed to double-dip with these college credits because he’s allowed to count them on his high school transcript to count as honors grades – but the fact remains that he has successful scored B’s and A’s on college level courses even if he can’t count them for college credit toward GE. He has a college transcript for them which he can simply forward to any college that accepts those courses.

    As far as the AP, I’ve asked the principal for the distribution of scores and a breakdown of student scores per class for which I feel justified asking for since those classes are the ones he should be taking in school and the exams get expensive for no real ROI. I think it is definitely the teachers who are lacking in delivering rigorous courses of study. It’s not necessarily their credentials as much as it is their methods of teaching which lack the rigor necessary for the students to have a course that is similar in weight to a college course. They give credit for homework without grading it, for one, and they give a lot of extra credit to bring the grade up when they should be focusing on content and ensuring students have mastered the topics. STAR scores (California State standardized scores) at this high school are abysmally low – only 20% of a student body of 2000 students score in proficient of advanced in Math subjects of Geometry, Algebra II, and Summative Math whereas scores on English and Biology tend to be higher – the same kids, but diffferent teachers. It seems to be the teachers, but I guess it could be the test. I lean toward the teaching.

    As a side note, they’ve started the International Baccalaureate (IB) program this year at my son’s school with the comment from my son’s IB history teacher (at last night’s back to school night) that more and more colleges are becoming jaded against AP because they feel that the tests don’t prove that students are prepared to handle the rigor – I don’t know what to believe at this point. My son is enrolled in two of those IB classes, but truth be told – I’m feeling very skeptical. I find that the end result is that the skills of the teachers is lacking. Your thoughts?

  7. Jane,
    Thanks for visiting my blog and sharing your experiences as a parent.
    First, if the school scores on the STAR tests are low, there could be several explanations. First, how academically “ready” are the majority of kids coming into the school? Are there lots of non-native speakers of English? Are there any other explanations–other than teaching–for the below average scores? If there are no other extenuating factors, then I ‘d be likely to agree that the teaching is a major source of the problem.

    Second, it is s dubious claim that students who do AP are “not ready” for college. It is true that some of the most selective colleges in the country are not accepting calculus scores for college credit. But students who score a 5 on the test are certainly much more prepared than students who score a 2. By claiming that the colleges are to blame for the switch away from AP is perhaps a mask for the fact that the teachers are unprepared to lift their students up over the AP hurdle. Your question to the school must focus on the pass rates. Is your son the only student who received 1s and 2s on the tests? Did any students get 5s? If so, what was the score distribution? There are teachers out there who consistently have a 100% pass rate (3 or above) and who have 50-75% of their students who get perfect 5s–my sister is one of them.
    Third, if the school is now moving toward IB, that is great–as a curriculum. But the mere fact of offering IB courses doesn’t mean that students will pass the IB courses with high scores–which is what is necessary for entry to selective colleges.
    My question, as a parent and educator, would be the following: it’s all well and good that you are implementing rigorous curriculum at our school. But what are you doing to ensure that teachers are extremely well-prepared to teach the content? How many of them have Masters’ degrees in their content area (as opposed to Master’s of education and/or pedagogy)? How many hours of content training have they received from the IB organization? Also, for the principal, you can ask about the goals: how many of the kids in this school do you envision will receive top scores on the IB exams? What are the goals?
    In the end, changing the curriculum does not guarantee student success and academic preparation. A great curriculum necessitates great teaching. And the rigors of the AP and IB curricula are, to be quite frank, beyond the capability of a great many teachers in the US.
    As my commenter, Yingna, notes above, it is very possible that brilliant students can get high scores on the AP or IB exames, with our without their teachers’ help. But most of use require some sort of instruction in order to attain high levels of competency.
    So, my thoughts amount to this: you are right to call into the question the ability of your sons’ teachers to deliver the AP or IB curriculum in a way that will ensure their success on the exams.
    Finally, your use of community college credits to count as honors courses is a good one. As I said earlier in response to a previous comment, these are “sure bets,” as opposed to a roll of the dice on the AP test. Not all community college courses are super rigorous. But they are college-level courses. And generally speaking, colleges are pleased to see them on your sons’ transcripts.

    I hope this is helpful. Please do not hesitate to write again with questions or comments. Many thanks for visiting my blog.

  8. Balderdash. The quality of teaching may have something to do with whether students succeed on the AP exam, but it is hardly the most important determinant. I taught AP psychology at a college preparatory school. 90% of my kids passed the exam. Big deal. I had smart kids. I also had motivated kids. Put me back into the public school scenario where I taught regular (not AP) psychology for 10 years and relatively few of my kids would have succeeded. Amazing how teachers get good or bad depending on the quality of their students. Go back and read the sentence about Jaime Escalante. It rings truer than anything else in this column.

  9. Dear Mr. Mattimore,

    Thanks for visiting my blog. You are right that having motivated, prepared kids makes any teacher’s job easier. But I have seen even experienced teachers fail to prepare kids for the AP exam. A previously high performing school may have a record of good pass rates that suddenly drop when a new, inexperienced teacher steps into a new roll. Teaching can make a difference.

    I’m confused about your reference to Jaime Escalante: my point was that strong teachers with a workaholic attitude can get poorer, less prepared kids to pass AP calculus. Poor kids are not born stupid: they can achieve under certain conditions.

    We can disagree (as many do) as to the role of a teacher in student success. Settling this disagreement is not one that educational researchers will be able to prove one way or another with statistical certainty.

    My experience has been that poorer schools have less prepared teachers than richer schools. This is part of the inequality of American education. My sister teaches in the richest school in town, with at least one Ivy League educated teacher in every department. I volunteer at a predominantly black school across town that has a disproportionate number of 24 and 25 year olds who barely got their education certificates. Clearly the student demographics are different in the two places. But so are the teacher demographics.

    Again, which is the dependent variable and which is the independent? We can agree to disagree because no statistical proof exists: my feeling against yours. But it’s a sad truth that the poor performance and poorly trained teachers exist in the same school more often than not.

  10. You ask how many schools teaching poor kids are full of Jaime Escalante’s? You answer, darn few. You could also ask the same question of the Exeter’s and Andover’s of the world and you get the same answer. Darn few. It is a myth to believe that we have lots of great teachers out there who just happen to have ended up at the most prestigious high schools. Yeah the Ivy League credentialed teacher may end up at the high-end school. Gal may have a 140 IQ and be able to put it out there for kids who can sop it up. But it is many times tougher to teach in a hard scrabble urban school. It takes a different personality than the academic. I don’t accept your conclusion- that poor performance teachers and poorly trained teachers exist in the same (minority) schools more often than not. If by poorly trained, you mean, less and sometimes even inadequate training, I’ll buy that. But, I would not equate performance with training. At the school where you volunteer do a little experiment with the kids. Ask them who their best teacher is. And worst. Get some consensus in your own mind as to the tops and bottoms. You might also ask the kids why. See how well the best through the worst equate with that teacher’s credentials.
    BTW Mark, I think it’s admirable that you have chosen to help disadvantaged kids. We need more people like you.

  11. Dear Mr. Mattimore,
    I have a couple of questions for you.
    First, to what do you attribute poor academic performance in our urban, public high schools?
    Second, the request to ask my urban student about their best and worst teachers is worth a try. But since kids in any high school cannot compare educational experiences across town, what would I hope to learn from this exercise? In other words, what’s your prediction?
    I agree wholeheartedly that teaching in an urban public school is a different proposition than teaching at Andover. Your line of reasoning, it seems, is that teachers don’t really make a difference in a student’s success one way or another. So what it is, then? Is academic capability and achievement determined by one’s economic class? Further, if we want to close the achievement gap, how do we do that? Or is there no hope?
    Thanks again for visiting and for commenting. I enjoy the conversation.

  12. Mark,
    Call me Pat or Patrick please.
    Question #1. Well this could go on for a while but… No great surprise that kids show up for that first day of K in vastly different places. In a more homogeneous society some of those differences would get ironed out as kids got older. In America that doesn’t happen and kids give up. Why? Well we tend to pursue things we are good at. Meredith Phillips, UCLA researcher has estimated that about half the difference we see between black and white kids at hs graduation (and remember there is about a four-year difference then and those are the kids who are graduating) is attributable to differences when they enter school. So I would look at putting resources into the early years gap.
    2. My prediction has nothing to do with comparing the kids with your sister’s classes though she could certainly do the experiment independently. I would predict two things:
    A. You will find a fairly weak positive correlation between a person’s academic preparation and that person’s classroom effectiveness (now I realize we are getting subjective judgments from kids about teachers but they are as good as anyone to do the judging)- correlation may be slightly stronger in an advantaged school.
    B. When kids cite what makes a good teacher, it won’t have much or anything to do with the person’s academics/intelligence- I would predict you’ll get kids talking about a teacher’s empathic qualities- she really understands me, he’s always there to help, etc.

    3. Closing the achievement gap… I don’t have the answer but let me propose instead a thought experiment. Imagine that beginning tomorrow every baby born in the U.S. is randomly assigned to another one of that day’s birth mothers. A Native American child born on a reservation in Montana might end up with a single mother in New York or a main line couple from Philadelphia, whose baby went to Seattle, might receive twins born to a mother in Iowa.

    Consider what tomorrow’s cohort of babies and each day’s subsequent groups of babies might mean in terms of our schools ten years down the line. A private elementary school in California would likely be indistinguishable from a Chicago inner city grammar school, at least in terms of the faces of the children. Certainly, our true melted pot would provide researchers a wonderful laboratory to explore the relative effects of nature versus nurture, but regardless of their findings, we could expect a radical societal transformation.

    Because no mother would know in advance which baby she would receive, all our expectant mothers and families would have a stake in insuring that each fetus got the best possible pre-natal care. These groups would likely lobby to make sure that hospitals and governmental assistance programs provided extra services to those most in need, high risk babies born to crack or alcohol addicted mothers, for example. Although our babies would never enter the world with precisely equal chances, every parent-to-be would have an enormous stake in trying to give every newborn the best start in life she could possibly have.

    Now let’s assume that we could channel that communal goodwill spirit into our schools today. Instead of the largely selfish approach that looks out for our own children but neglects other children, we substitute a sense that we all have a responsibility and interest to insure that each of our children succeeds.

    But without a fundamental reordering of priorities, I think the achievement gap will remain largely intractable.

  13. This is a fascinating discussion, I’m sorry it is not still active.

    My two cents: There is plenty of blame to spread around, and fingers can be rightfully pointed at admin, teachers, students, and parents.

    So, what to do given the cards we as students and parents are dealt ? I recommend that the mother of the child who failed the AP test purchase AP prep/test books, and encourage her son to form a study group. The books are exactly the level that the test is at, and can be purchased very cheaply used at half.com or other places on the internet. Don’t worry about buying a previous edition — It’s fine, and usually less than $5. Between the kids in the group and a parent who can help, the kids will be able to close any gap their class studies have opened, at least within the reasonable limits of the student’s abilities.

    Don’t trust me though, both my kids give these books their strong recommendation.

    The blame game is well and good, but it will not help the student today.

  14. I was wondering if I could be harmed for not taking certain AP courses at my school. I am a sophomore and when I was entering school this year I was offered AP Chemistry but I decided against it and I am currently enrolled in Pre-AP Chemistry 1 Honors. In this Chemistry course I currently have a 99.6 (higher grade in this class than in Spanish and I am a native speaker). It is extremely boring and too easy. Part of the reason I didn’t take the course is because I felt it would be too difficult but it also has a 30% pass rate on the AP Test which drops to 2% for sophomores. I know that colleges will see the courses offered by the school and they will know that I had the oppurtunity to take AP Chemistry sophomore year. Do you think that my application will be hurt by this choice since I am not taking the most rigorous course load, even if I take the class later on?

  15. Hello again, Jesus.

    If you felt that the course would be too difficult, and you based this decision on reasonable criteria, I wouldn’t worry so much. Admissions officers are not going to look at this granular level: “Aha! He could have taken AP Chem in sophomore year, and he didn’t–so he’s a slacker!”. If you are doing super–well in honors Pre-AP Chem, and then you so super well in AP Chem later AND get a 5 on the exam, where’s the problem?

    Keep doing well. You’re right to consider your strategy carefully. But try not to over-analyze the situation too much, either.

    Thanks for visiting again. Let me know if you have other questions!

  16. Jesus,
    Would absolutely second what markm wrote. Colleges will have no idea that you were offered and declined AP Chem. Follow it up and you will be fine. What’s the alternative anyway?
    This may not be the advice you will get from everyone but… I would be a lot less concerned with trying to strategize or position yourself for college and instead try and develop a passion for something in high school. Your passion will come through and open many more doors (and more importantly, the right doors) than your attempts to make yourself into the right kind of student.

  17. Patrick, thanks again for visiting my blog. I agree with your advice to Jesus: it’s about passion and performance, not trying to develop some false strategy that does not fit with who you are as a human. Do what you love, do it to the best of your ability, and you will find the college that values you for who you are.

  18. I have read the comments with great interest. Currently I have a son in his senior year and have very mixed feelings about the AP situation. He had completed four AP classes by the end of his junior year and taken one AP exam without having taken the class. In all, he had completed five AP exams as a junior. His results have yielded him the AP scholar with distinction: two 5’s, two 4’s and one three. Although I am proud of him, he is down on himself for a lower GPA.He has an academic GPA of A-: during his first three years he received grades of A’s and A- (majority) with only one B in AP Physics. He took the most rigorous academic course load available at the school but failed to get into his first choice early action college while a peer who took fewer AP course loads and with better GPA have gotten into the same college.(extracurriculars and community service are similar) This year he has four more AP classes and will end up with grades more or less in the A, A- category.
    I wonder if he should have taken fewer AP courses which would have allowed him to work towards a higher GPA, but we were encouraged to have him take the most rigorous schedule available. The school only offers regular or AP courses, there is no honors level. When questioning the guidance department about his deferment, they told us the GPA was most likely the problem. Where is the defining line of rigor versus GPA? My son enjoyed the challenges of the courses taken but did he shoot himself in the foot by not taking the easier courses that he could have received better grades in? Where does the “challenge” component come in on applications? Are all APs recognized by the colleges as equally strenuous?

    I now have a daughter planning her schedule for her junior year at High School and am faced with the dilemma of AP, Honors or regular. Please help me to understand so that I may guide her. Thank you.

  19. Dear Laura,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comments and questions.

    First off, I think you should be enormously proud of your son having achieved the status of AP Scholar of Distinction. This is a tremendous feat. Whether or not your son was accepted ED to his first choice school, you should keep your eye on the accomplishments and on the fact that your son is well-prepared for academic success, no matter what college he attends. He has done well to challenge himself and he has performed admirably.

    Second, keep in mind that college admission is an art, not a science. The fact that your son’s peer was accepted while your son was deferred is an unfortunate reality of the admissions game. Too many factors weigh into admissions decisions, and you should never take rejection personally–or as a referendum on the wisdom of your son’s academic choices. He did the right thing to take the AP loads. But if you seek a scientific explanation for why he was deferred, there is none. You might want to look at my post here for solace: it’s all much more random than colleges would like to admit: http://greatcollegeadvice.com/dirty-secrets-of-college-admissions-its-more-art-than-science/ .

    As for your daughter, I don’t think you should advise her to “dumb down” her curriculum in order to get a good GPA. Despite your son’s experience, the general rule remains the same: take the toughest curriculum available and perform at the top. A very selective school will not reward a good GPA in regular college prep courses over a student who did well in a rigorous AP or IB curriculum.

    You also ask whether all AP courses are perceived to be of equal rigor. The answer is no. I would need to take a look at the courses your son took to give you a more specific opinion.

    I wish I could give you more concrete, specific, hard-and-fast rules about admission to selective colleges. Harvard turns down hundreds of valedictorians every year. All kids can do is play their cards intelligently. They must do their best. But nothing will guarantee that they will win the jackpot.

    Frustrating, I know. But that is the nature of the admissions game.

    Please let me know if you’d like to have a more specific conversation about your daughter’s trajectory . And thanks again for your question.

  20. Hi Mark – I found this website while looking through my school’s IB website (Rowland High School-Los Angeles, CA), but I noticed I can relate to the problems in many previous comments.
    I’m currently a sophomore in high school, and recently my IB coordinator brought up the question of how to organize my schedule for next year & senior year based on whether I plan to stay in IB or not – before it’s too late – and I wouldn’t want to stay in IB junior year and then quit senior year because that would look very bad.
    I’m worried I might not survive an IB senior year because I would have 6-7 IB/AP classes, including being a member of several clubs and the possibility of having a part-time job all at the same time. If I quit IB, I would probably have at least 5 AP classes and have a little (or a lot) more freedom, but also I’m worried that that won’t be enough of a challenge that prestigious colleges would expect (e.g. UCLA, UC Berkeley, Yale). Plus, I want to take a few of those special courses that are only available for IB kids (such as Theory of Knowledge).
    I haven’t really thought much about the benefits of AP/IB exams, but is it true that if you fail the exam for any course, then you’d have to take it again in college to get the credit?
    I really want to see myself graduating with an IB diploma, but I’m not sure if I can handle the rigor of the courses along with a whole bunch of extra-curricular activities & little time, so is it wiser to quit IB and switch to AP?
    (Even though it’s rumored at my school that AP classes are actually harder than IB classes)

  21. OK, I’m grade 10 student and my mom wants me to take physics and chemistry advanced placement, but I don’t want to. I plan to take Computer Science in university (probably Waterloo). So, should I take Physics and Chemistry Advance Placement? Please, leave a comment here or send me the answer to my email. Thank you.

  22. Jacob,
    Thanks for your question. You say you “don’t want to” take AP. That doesn’t seem like a very strong reason. Sometimes we do things in life in order to make other things possible. Would taking a higher level course in science help you gain admission to Waterloo? Probably. Those courses might not be absolutely necessary, but they might also train your mind to be very nimble when you go to study Computer Science.

    I cannot really settle the disagreement between you and your mother. But I would say that you’d have to come up with a better reason than “I don’t want to.” If you have good, solid, reasonable explanations for why you should not push yourself in these higher level courses, I’m sure you mother might be willing to listen to your case.

    Good luck!

  23. Hello again Mark,
    I wanted to ask you which of the AP science courses you believe are seen best by colleges. Is it AP Biology, AP Chemistry, or AP Physics. Also, which would you recommend considering the following details about AP exam pass rates at my school. AP Biology was actually discontinued this year because it had too low a pass rate. It might be reinstated next year. AP Chem has a low pass rate, about 10 people per year. AP Physics has a slightly higher pass rate but it is still around 10 people.

  24. Jesus,
    For highly selective colleges, you need all three AP courses and exams. Of course, if your school doesn’t offer one, then you’ll not be able to do it (and your application should reflect the school’s decision to drop the course). As for pass rates, you give me raw numbers rather than percentages. But whatever the pass rates at your school, your strategy is to do as well on those AP exams as you possibly can. If you feel confident with the material, you might also consider taking the AP exam even if you haven’t taken the courses. And by all means, you should consider the SAT2 tests in the sciences as a way to demonstrate your abilities.
    Good luck!

  25. I didn’t know that you needed all three for selective colleges!! I don’t want to be a science major so I don’t believe I need all three. I believe that I would be fine with two out of three. It seems unbelieavable that someone who is interested in a political science major would be expected to take such an intense science load in high school. My top colleges are Columbia University, Georgetown University, University of Florida, and UC Berkely; and I don’t believe that the majority of their positions are filled by people who have taken 3 AP sciences.

  26. PS: I don’t have percentages but I know that their are usually 2 AP classes per science which means from 40-60 students. With budget cuts odds are that the classes will be made much larger and a period will probably slashed off reducing the number of students who take the AP test. If only about 10 out of 50 students pass that makes it about a +/-20% pass rate.

  27. 20% pass is just an estimate. I actually think it is a little higher, more in the neighborhood of 30%.

  28. Thank you for this informative article.
    During the past ten years,our school district has expanded the AP courses. The success rate of students passing the test was never disclosed. But the district always boasted the addition of a new offering. Five years ago, I happily enrolled my daughter in AP Chem instead of High Honors grade 10 Chem. However, had I not received a Chem degree, it would have been a disaster for her academically. I was able to tutor her (actually, throughout the school year, I filled in the gaps of information) and she successfully scored a 4 on the exam. The majority of the class scored a level of one or two. Only one other student scored a level 5.
    Fast forward to the present, my son is currently in ninth grade and taking two AP courses. He is taking Bio and World History. His experience has clearly demonstrated to us that the teacher’s content expertise influences the course. The Bio teacher definitely has the “key” for preparing the students for the AP and the NY State Reagent tests.

  29. PS. The great debate is whether or not enrolling in the honors Chem class would hurt his future college acceptance.

  30. Cathy,
    Thanks for sharing your family’s experience. It is definitely very important to consider the quality of classroom instruction. While it is true that no AP teacher can work miracles preparing students for AP tests, it is also true that not all AP teachers have the pedagogical skills and/or content knowledge to do the curriculum (or their students) justice.
    Thanks again for the comment.

  31. Students or parents who are considering dumbing down their class choices in order to have a higher GPA are missing the obvious in my opinion: selective colleges are going to be too hard for that student. I cannot imagine why a student would game the system to get into a program that will lead to failure.

    Not all students are fit for the Ivy league, or CalTech …
    Just because the HS has embarked on grade inflation does not mean people should take the bait.

    I suggest viewing AP courses and tests as reasonable measures of student ability — albeit tempered by context and circumstance. A student surrounded by an awful school, awful teacher, and no help from fellow students or parents will have to gauge their success accordingly. Hopefully most are not in that situation.

  32. Cathy S,
    If you are able to supplement the class, what is hte problem ? Both my kids took the AP Chem class in HS. My son took it in grade 10, my daughter in grade 11 after taking regular Chem in grade 10. The teacher is liked very much by the students, but is pretty uniformly considered a poor teacher. The kids organize themselves into study groups on their own initiative, and supplement the textbook with AP study guides. I don’t have a Chem degree, but remember enough of the college Chem I took years ago to help them solve problems or gain a bit deeper understanding when needed. Good stuff for all.
    Results: my son scored a 5, my daughter has decided not to take the test this year, since her other AP tests are enough on her plate.

  33. Hello Parents,

    Some online programs (CTY John Hopkins for example) give AP classes. Our School gives the same class. What would be the difference ? (In terms of admissions, in School you can take it only during certain years / Online, we can take anytime – summer …)

    Will appreciate your view on this.

  34. Hello, Santhi. Thanks for the question. The place and time of the AP class is immaterial. What matters is the credit the student received, the grade for the course, and (especially) the mark on the AP exam corresponding to the course. The CTY at JHU is good, though I have no personal experience with my clients having taken AP classes online through that program. You should ask about pass rates and about who the teachers are for those courses. Also, the more experienced the teacher in delivering online courses, the more likely the experience is going to be a good one for your son or daughter.
    Hope this helps, and thanks for reading my blog.

  35. so i’m in 10 grade right now, I’m also kind a behind schedule of my classes, right now i’m almost done with my spanish 1a and 1b and bio a and b. so my question is should i take AP english lang. lit for my 11 grade year or honors literature

  36. Hi, Louie. Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, I cannot really make any personal recommendations unless I know a lot more about your situation. I would be happy to provide you (and your family) a personal consultation about your college plans. Don’t hesitate to get in touch so that I can provide some advice that is personally tailored to you and your needs. Thanks!

  37. Hi, I’ve noticed some students asking for advice in their schedules concerning AP classes – well here’s another one! So far, here’s what I have for my Junior year:

    AP Chem
    French III
    English 11 Academic (I can’t remember if it’s an AP next year or ust weighted)
    Pre-Cal
    AP US History
    Film Literature (easy elective)
    AP Environmental Science
    SRT (study hall)

    My passions are art and science. So, I’m thinking of NOT taking AP US because then I would be able to take Painting II, which would be much more fun for me and then I’d be able to focus more on the sciences if regular US History isn’t as time consuming. I’m also sort of debating about if I should take AP Environmental Science..

    Any advice would be appreciated! Here’s some academic, etc. background info:
    in National Honor Society w/ a 3.84 GPA
    Class rank = 8th
    French Honor Society
    Geology Club
    member of Aquila staff (school art and literary art magazine)
    Dance Team

    I’ve talked to my teachers and guidance counselors, and they tell me that I should take AP Environmental and AP US but I’m a little hesitant about it. You seem like you could give me a more realistic answer. Enviro sounds really interesting, but I don’t want my GPA to plummet or to be super stressed and not have time to do anything else. I’m sure that I want to take AP Chem next year and then AP Bio when I’m a sr.
    Do you think it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t take the US History so that colleges see that I’m still doing my art classes that really interest me? Like, if my main interests are art and science, will it not matter if I don’t take other AP classes besides those? Should I take both science classes, or just the AP Chem? The AP chem has a reputation of being brutal, my friend who’s ranked first in her class got a C in the class. I try not to compare myself to others – and I’m not sure if science is her thing, so that might have something to do with it.

  38. Oh yeah, and as far as college goes, if it affects any advice – I’m not sure what I plan on majoring in but I’ve always thought of going to Indiana University.

  39. Hi, Cassidy.
    Thanks for writing in. You are good at providing me plenty of information, and I appreciate that.

    Here’s my analysis. You ask whether it “would matter” whether you take art or AP US history. You ask about the trade-off between art and history, and I can see that there are trade-offs in the immediate term. But what about the longer term?

    Things “matter” if they have an impact on future goals or aspirations. You haven’t given me any of that information at all: what are your hopes and dreams? What sort of college do you hope to attend? An art school? A selective liberal arts school? A community college? You mention Indiana U, which is helpful, but that goal also needs more context: which discipline do you want to study? Are you and Indiana resident or not? Will you need financial aid?

    So you can see, whether it “matters” depends on a lot of other things. My tendency–in the absence of more information–would be to rely upon the advice of those who know you best–your teachers and guidance counselors (oh, and your parents of course!). But again, I’d have to dig more in order to get at the real heart of the matter here.

    I do think you are asking some of the right questions: will you be too stressed? Will AP Chm be brutal? Will your GPA plummet? Of course, I cannot answer these questions adequately for you.

    But I can offer a few thoughts. First off, if your teachers are encouraging you to take AP history, it’s because they think you can handle it. And personally, I think a good, solid history course is essential to being an educated American: how can you understand or even think about how to respond to North Korea’s announcement of a nuclear test yesterday–and for whom to vote to represent you in Congress or the Presidency–if you really don’t have any idea where our country comes from, what has happened in the past, and what guides the past might offer for the future? I’m not saying you have to love history, but it is a beautiful, exciting tapestry of events and characters and crazy goings on. The stories are fascinating, if you take the time to read them. Yeah, it can be dry sometimes. But it can also be funny. Or sad. Or scary. Or wacky.

    I’d also offer these thoughts about painting: if for some reason you are unable to take the Painting II class, and you love to paint…then paint. Pursue that passion to the max. Even if you have to drop FHS or something else in your life. If it something you really want to do, then do it. A lot. Give some of your paintings away (after you have taken photos of them for your portfolio). Organize an exhibition of your work in a nursing home or other public space. Sign up for summer painting classes (which are generally easier to find than summer AP history classes!). Paint, paint, paint. And start amassing that portfolio. Your passion will be a source of great joy, whether or not you are able to take that particular class in your junior year. And if you pursue the passion as far as you can, it may just help you in creating a college plan for yourself.

    Thanks again for writing, Cassidy, and I wish you tons of luck!

  40. We are new to this game as my husband and I only went as far as Tech school with our education and our oldest is going to be a junior this fall. The question I have regarding AP classes and GPA is in the interest of money. We are more interested in how we are going to pay for any college than if my son get’s into a “selective” college. My son will be a junior this fall and took AP US History as a sophomore. He got a B in the class but we just received his exam score and it was only a 1. He was pretty surprised and discouraged, he thought he’d done better. He has a GPA of 3.6 but feels this was brought down because he took the AP class. He is registered for at least 2, maybe 3 AP classes for his junior year.

    We struggle financially and have no college fund set up for him. I haven’t researched this fully yet but I don’t believe we are low income enough to qualify for much financial aid. Is he better off taking less rigorous classes and getting his GPA and class rank back up in terms of getting academic scholarships? We don’t have enough education ourselves to help him with these tough classes and can’t afford tutors. He’s bright and works hard and we just want to make sure we help him make the right choices and don’t look back when it’s too late and wish we’d done things differently. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  41. Dear Robin,

    Thanks for your comments and questions.

    Let me start off by saying that your issues are not uncommon: families are trying to figure out how to pay for college, and you are learning that the strategies are complex and sometimes seem to lead in opposite directions. I work with a number of families in your situation who find it worthwhile to invest in some good, solid advice up front so that they can save considerable amounts of money on college tuition bills.

    Generally speaking, your son should take hard courses and get a good education. That said, I hear your struggle in trying to balance how he will look as an applicant. You know that GPA counts. But academic rigor also counts.

    If you were my client, I would want to investigate the reasons for which your son received a B in the AP class and only a 1 on the test. I have many questions your school and the preparation of the teachers to deliver this demanding curriculum.

    I would also want to understand the elements of his 3.6 GPA. How much of that reflects his performance in core academic subjects, and how much is carried by good grades in gym, art, choir, and other fluffy electives.

    With regard to academic scholarships, everything depends on how well your son does moving forward (so his first responsibility to himself and to his parents is to get the best grades possible in the toughest courses possible), as well as on the school he chooses. A good match will yield more merit and need-based aid than a poor match.

    This is the value of an educational consultant: we can help you develop a strategy that works. For example, I had a client in the last cycle in which the parents were both out of work, had cashed out their retirement accounts, and were living on fumes, it seemed. However, they scraped the money together to hire me. I was able to help their daughter not only get into the small liberal arts college that she had dreamed of for years, but I was able to help her get scholarships and need based aid so that she is paying only $3000 per year out of pocket for an education with a list price of nearly $50,000 per year. It was all about the match.

    Whether or not you explore the possibility of hiring me, know that “dumbing down” your son’s curriculum will no help him in the long run. It is all about college preparedness. He needs to be ready to perform at the college level, and if he takes easier courses, he will be less prepared (and therefore more likely to become a college drop-out: only about 50% of students who start a four-year college actually complete their degree within six years).

    I hope this is somewhat helpful. Let me know if I can be of further assistance.

  42. My daughter is entering her senior year(Florida) having passed 7 AP courses so far(3.57 all 3&4)Her GPA is 3.25 and weighted is 4.45. 650,670,580 SAT and 760 bio.

    Now her guidance counsellor is guiding her college wish list down because the AP strain last year drained away study time from the regular honors classes,and hammered her GPA.

    She’s a wonderful, mature kid who is active in team sports and community service. What say you, do we back away from a shot at Cornell and Washington St.Louis? She would like to go to a college with an academically ambitious freshman class. How do you approach the college search when the results are fairly good but a little short for selective schools?

  43. Hi, Ben.

    Your daughter sounds like a great kid. She needs to focus on colleges that will value her for who she is, for her many strengths, and that will provide her with a rich, challenging, and exciting undergraduate experience. The scores and GPA are competitive credentials. Although she passed her AP exams, a scores of three is not as competitive as 5. A 3.25 unweighted GPA is not as competitive as a 3.89 unweighted GPA. A combined SAT of 1900 is not as competitive as a 2100.

    Scores are scores, grades are grades, and colleges with a surplus of applicants for the number of places in the freshman class can afford to be choosy about those scores and grades. But that doesn’t mean–for one minute–that your daughter will not have a shot at an excellent education at a school that suits her well.

    If I were counseling her, I would be focusing in on the qualitative aspects of her college choice more than on the quantitative aspects. I would want to learn more about her as a person–her values, her personality, her interest, her talents–and then recommend colleges that suit her qualitatively. While it’s true that the quantitative aspects of her application may limit a few of her choices, there is no reason to believe that she has to make qualitative compromises.

    I’d be happy to try to help your daughter find the schools that best match her interests, abilities, and aspirations.

    All the best!

  44. hi, im entering my last years of high school. Im am not given the option of taking AP classes. what are some reasons why my school should have them? i dont see why there so important.

  45. Hello, Katie,
    The decision to offer AP classes is one your school can make. If you don’t have the option, then you don’t need to worry about it, as college admissions officers will judge your grades and curriculum in the context in which you are learning. Many schools do not offer AP courses

    Those that do, however, are looking for ways to increase the academic rigor of their course offerings, and to provide college level instruction and learning while in HS. As I have written, just because a course is labeled “AP” does not mean that it is rigorous, or that the teacher is well-prepared to deliver the content, or that you will perform well on the end-of-course AP exams. But success in an AP course–and on the exam–does demonstrate that you are able to perform at a high level in comparison with your peers around the country who are taking the same exam.

    Again, if your school does not offer AP courses, you need not fret.

    Best of luck, and thanks for visiting my blog!

  46. Hi Mark, this question may be a little bit unrelated to the page topic but her it goes. I am currently taking 4 AP courses as a junior with a 96.25 unweighted GPA in those AP courses. My Freshman and sophomore years I had a 94 unweighted and a 98 unweighted respectively. I play 2 varsity sports and tutor but that is it for extracurriculars. Will this lack of extracurriculars hurt me in the long run?

  47. Hello, Ted.
    It’s not the number of extracurricular activities that matters. It’s the quality, the level of excellence, and the commitment. If you are making positive and lasting contributions in your current activities, if you are pushing yourself to the max, and if you are excelling, then maintain your current commitments. Deepen them. Improve your performance. Expand your impact. That is what most colleges will be seeking: students who excel and who make a difference.
    I hope this helps. Good luck!

  48. Dear mark,

    I am a high school senior,and i am wondering;whether colleges look at your G.P.A for junior and senior year,or, all 4 years.What grade in AP iss the best grade to make.

  49. Hello, and thanks for the questions, Deron. Most colleges look at all the grades at their disposal. Most prefer to see grades from first semester of senior year, unless you are applying under one of the early decision programs. The bottom line: all your grades count. You should always assume that they count, and never try to manufacture reasons to slack off.

    With regard to AP tests, the tests are graded on a 5 point scale, 5 being the highest, and 3 generally considered a “passing” grade. So as for what is best, 5 is best. But your personal best may be something different. Also, keep in mind that just because you get an A in an AP course does not mean that you will necessarily pass the AP exam. Some schools have policies that require teachers to grade classwork in a way that reflects an anticipated AP exam score; others do not.

    I hope this is helpful. Best of luck to you!

  50. Hi Mark,
    I see this thread will not die. That’s good.
    I have written before of my kids who have taken their fair share of AP classes, and benefits accrued as a result thereof. I want to add my slightly unusual view of the connection between AP classes and college selectivity:
    My son has been ‘accelerated’ in coursework since grade 6, which let him finish the AP treadmill in math, chemistry, and physics by grade 10 with ‘5’s. From his junior HS year he has split his days between his HS and our local University. Now in his senior year in HS, he is taking quantum mechanics and diff Eq’s at the Uni. He will enter Universtiy next year as a Junior by credits, and be about 18 months away from BSc in maths or chemistry. If he stays motivated, he will finish masters level graduate coursework around the time he obtains a bachelor’s degree.
    All well and good, but here is my point: my son finds his coursework demanding enough, thank you very much, and would be quick to judge his classmates a rather selective bunch of kids. Odd, since this is a 2nd – 3rd tier University. Actually not odd at all, once it is realized that *every* university in the country has a cohort of profs who are at worse only extremely bright; while any graduate student in the sciences is easily in the top 1% ranking of the population.
    AP classes in HS let appropriate students jump as quickly as they are able into this bright, highly self-selected group which exists in every University town in the country.

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