Patrick Semansky, AP
Austin Drake planned to go to Columbia University since the age of 12. He took every Advanced Placement course he could manage, paying particular attention to science and math.
Drake knew that attending a school like Columbia would be too expensive for his parents; he’d need to get scholarships, grants and if possible, shorten his time there by testing out of core requirements. He hoped AP classes would help him, as they have a generation of students.
That promise, however, is now under threat. Top-tier universities are beginning to turn their backs on AP credit, and some college admissions advisers say taking those classes may no longer offer a competitive advantage to getting into elite schools.
“What used to be a demanding program is becoming a box to be checked along with building houses for two weeks in Ecuador and running for student council,” Frank Costas, academic adviser at Columbia University, said. “It’s getting harder to tell if AP classes are still preparing students for the rigor of college or if it’s a victim of grade inflation like most other programs.”
Saving time and money: testing out of college courses
For Drake, now 19, AP classes delivered, or so it seemed. Drake received mostly fours out of five on his AP exams, well above the class of 2013 average of 2.8. Drake was accepted to Columbia, and his backup schools were Berkeley and Brigham Young University.
“AP classes probably got me into Columbia I guess,” Drake said. “But [Columbia] told me that I could only use the credits I earned from my AP classes as elective credits. I was still going to have to take all of those courses again.”
Realizing his AP courses would not save him time and had not earned him a scholarship to Columbia, Drake chose to attend BYU in his home state.
“BYU only let me use my AP class credit for two of my math classes and the rest were used as electives,” Drake said. “It’s funny though because I feel like my AP physics class was a lot harder than my BYU physics class. I guess that means the class prepped me well for college.”
Even a perfect score won’t get you more than one credit at schools like Harvard, Brown and Duke, and at Darmouth, beginning with the class of 2018, no credits will be awarded for AP courses at all.
While some elite schools do give credit for AP classes — Yale, Princeton and Columbia grant up to two elective credits for a score of four or higher — to get the full three to four credits required per class to graduate, students will find themselves retaking the courses they took in high school.
Why is this happening? Part of it, university representatives say, is because more and more students are taking AP classes, and test scores continue to rise, leading some to suspect that quality control is slipping.
Not all of the top-tier distrust AP courses. Students who score a four or higher on their exams can expect to test out of freshman and even some sophomore level classes at schools like Stanford and Cornell.
And schools like New York University, BYU and Purdue University will offer up to 16 credits for nearly all courses where the students scored three or higher. If those credits are concentrated in one area, like foreign language or math, they can save students up to a year.
“Studies have shown that students who excel in AP coursework outperform their counterparts at the university level,” Tara Hall, admissions officer at New York University, said. “It’s hard to argue with that. If they know the material, we see no reason to deny them the credit.”
All universities require at least a three on the exam in order to receive any credit, anything less will only grant the student partial college credit, even at second- and third-tier universities.
Better prepared for university-level work
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.”
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