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Are Advanced Placement courses worth it?

Published: Friday, July 18 2014 7:15 a.m. MDT

Studies have shown that those who shine on an AP level better acclimate to college than do their non-AP peers, but according to Denise Pope, Stanford senior lecturer and college success researcher, it’s not so clear-cut.

“There is an ongoing debate between those who claim a direct relationship between participation in AP courses in high school and academic success at the college level, and those who don’t believe there is a causal relationship,” Pope wrote in a research paper released last year. “Champions of the AP program claim that students who take AP courses tend to earn better grades in college, work harder, take less time to graduate, and are generally more likely to succeed in college than are students who do not take AP classes.”

But that could be because of the nature of the students, Pope said.

“Those who excel naturally at schoolwork are those who are most likely to enroll in AP classes and later do well at college,” said Sandra Phills, AP critic and professor of secondary education at University of Alaska.

Increased chance of acceptance into top-tier schools

Part of what makes an illustrious university illustrious is how many people it turns away each year. Most first- and second-tier schools brag of an admission rate between 6 and 17 percent, turning away between 94 and 83 percent of applicants.

In this area, it’s tough to argue that AP classes don’t fulfill the College Board’s goal of giving students a leg up on their competition.

“Undoubtedly competitive universities expect that their potential students have engaged in demanding and enriching classes,” Delores Thatcher, a school-placement specialist in New York, said. “AP classes are designed to meet those expectations.”

The problem is the whitewashing of college applications, making admissions tougher than they’ve ever been.

“Kids are taking AP classes because they think that’s what we’re looking for,” Hall said. “It’s a fair assumption, but it’s becoming inadequate. More and more every year applications are looking more and more the same, so we have to make the process harder and harder. It’s not enough to have taken AP classes; you have to ace your AP classes. And before you know it, it won’t be enough to ace them, they’ll have to be focused and tied in with your intended major.”

According to Hall, high school students are taking AP classes for the wrong reasons. “We don’t care so much about you doing what you think we want to see,” Hall said. “It’s more important that we see you have focus, drive and ambition.”

To take AP or not to take AP

When asked the question of whether or not AP classes are worth it, admission officers, researchers and past students are all on the fence.

“That depends on what ‘worth it’ means to you. I just wish someone had told me how universities really look at AP classes,” Drake said. “I don’t know that I would have done it differently, maybe I would have tried harder to get fives on my exams or maybe I would have given up on Columbia and not stressed myself out as much. I probably could have gotten into BYU without the AP classes, so I don’t know if they helped me or not.”

Hall, the admissions officer, recommends caution. “Unless they know they can perform on an outstanding level, receive top grades and keep up with the curriculum, I’d say students should reconsider taking AP classes,” Hall said. “A mediocre grade in an AP class is a black mark on a transcript. It shows us that the student isn’t ready.”

For Pope, the answer to whether or not AP classes are worth it is both yes and no.

“Before taking an AP class, really think about your reasons for being there,” Pope said. “Are you taking it because you’re passionate about the subject? Because you want to be challenged and be around intellectually challenging peers? If so, that's great. But if you’re considering taking AP because it seems like it’ll make you a shoo-in for your dream school, don’t do it.”

Read more on this topic:

QUIZ: Can you pass this AP exam?

The 9 different types of Advanced Placement teachers

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

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