When my son was in high school, he piled on Advanced Placement classes like delicious, gooey cheese on a plateful of nachos. He had set his sights on going to an Ivy League college and was determined to take every AP class he could muster.
It should be noted that this push did not come from us, his parents. In fact, we didn’t have even one AP class between us. We could do little more than provide him with food and hugs.
Although he handled it well, I questioned his decision to take such a heavy load. There is a part of me that feels that kids should be kids. College will come soon enough. But taking those courses ended up paving the way to his dream school and made his first semester at college a breeze.
So, does every student need to take AP courses? The short answer is, not necessarily.
Knowing your child and being realistic about their ability and time constraints can be helpful when determining their course load.
“Some kids can manage with a heavier load than others,” says Emily Levitt, vice president of education at Sylvan Learning. “You really need to know your work ethic. How much commitment you are willing to make? These courses are challenging and ask much more of you than a regular course would.”
One thing to note is that it’s not necessary for students to take AP classes as freshmen, or even as sophomores. “Junior year is when students tend to load up on AP courses because that’s when they’re starting to position themselves for the colleges they’re going to apply to,” explains Levitt. “That’s when they may need to start thinking about making their transcripts more attractive.”
Focus on Quality, Not Quantity
However, it’s quality, not quantity that should guide your student.
“It is not a matter of taking as many AP classes as you can. It’s a matter of taking as many AP classes as you have a passion for,” says Cyndy McDonald, a former high school college counselor who now advises other counselors. “Colleges don’t want to see a student slack off by taking all easy classes. But they also don’t want a student to stress themselves out with so many AP classes that they don’t do well, or they burn out.”
While rigor is important to admissions officers, so is maintaining a good grade point average—so if your student is floundering, it’s time to have a conversation.
“If a student is struggling in an AP course, it’s important to keep in mind the ultimate goal in taking that AP course,” says Levitt. “Was it the experience of taking a college-level course and trying to do well on the AP exam? If so, then I would say get a tutor and tough it out. If that’s not the case and they’re worried about their GPA, then I would drop down to an honors level or its equivalent.”
Kelly DeBie’s son, a high school junior, struggled to keep up with all the work in AP U.S. Government this semester, so he dropped to an honors-level class. His grade improved from a D to an A, and the class was still weighted an extra 0.5 towards his GPA.
“He didn’t see the point in torturing himself to get a low grade in a subject he has no interest in pursuing as a career,” says DeBie.
Levitt wants parents to keep this in mind: “The main thing colleges want to see is that students challenge themselves. The world doesn’t come to an end if they don’t take all APs. Rest assured, they will still go to college.”