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To Take or Not to Take AP Courses? AP Classes Pros and Cons

Advanced Placement (AP) tests have long been markers of academic rigor and excellence in high school education. These days, a high school transcript studded with several Advanced Placement courses is a powerful and effective way to demonstrate achievement to college admissions officials.

So, does that mean your student should sign up for a full load of AP? That depends, say the experts.

The History of AP Courses?

It helps to understand the history of AP. The curriculum was developed in 1955 by a group of Ivy League colleges and elite high schools. The goal—offer juniors and seniors more challenging coursework. Also, those students who scored well on the AP exam could bypass introductory college courses on the same subject.

Fifty years later, AP classes are no longer the exclusive province of elite, private high schools. In fact, they have become so widespread in American high schools that the College Board, which administers both the APs as well as the SATs, estimated in 2011 that roughly two million high school students (one-third of all high school students nationwide) were taking AP classes, frequently several at a time.

The AP System Has Come Under Criticism

However, in recent years, educators have become increasingly critical of APs. Colleges argue that AP courses do not provide the same caliber as a college course. Students who skip introductory courses in college can be ill-prepared for the next level, either because they rushed through critical concepts or missed them altogether.

Meanwhile, high school educators are also critical. They complain that the AP curriculum can be limiting and unimaginative. Also, it forces teachers to race through material without sufficient time to explore ideas or answer students’ questions. Lastly, it encourages memorization and regurgitation of facts over critical thinking and analysis.

As a result, a growing number of colleges are declining to accept AP credits altogether—or limiting the number they’ll accept. They include, most recently, Dartmouth, as well as Cornell, Brown, Amherst, Williams, and others. Some elite private high schools have also dropped AP courses. Those schools prefer to develop their own rigorous courses, but with greater flexibility for teachers.

Should Your Teen Take AP?

So, back to the question of whether your teenager should take AP. Part of the answer depends on the high school your teenager attends. If an AP class is the best way to demonstrate the highest level of achievement at that school, then students who want to gain admission to the most elite colleges have no choice but to take at least some AP classes.

“AP classes demonstrate an eagerness to be challenged in high school and the extent to which the student can handle a challenge successfully in college,” explains Jenny Fisher, director of college counseling at University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio. When AP credits don’t save tuition dollars, there can still be significant benefits. AP credit can create more choices for college courses or the option to pursue concurrent degrees, she adds. For most schools, AP credits will help the student place out of introductory courses in college. AP courses will likely remain a significant factor in college admission decisions for the foreseeable future.

Measure AP Classes Pros and Cons

Still, others say, there are reasons not to take the AP version of a class. “Students feel so compelled to take AP classes—either by their parents, or peer pressure, or even the school itself—that they end up taking AP courses which may not be the appropriate level course for them. Or they miss out on other interesting, great courses that would be wonderful for them,” states Missy Rose, director of college guidance at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

At the end of the day, Rose and other experts suggest weighing the benefits against the stress when deciding whether or not to encourage their teen to take AP courses. The student should consider the stress, increased workload, and risk of burnout.

Thinking about taking AP classes?

If your teenager can get an A or a B in an AP course, it will help their prospects at a competitive college. Earning a C or D in an AP course? If that’s a likely outcome, it may be better for a teenager to stick with honors or other non-AP options offered at their high school. Finally, if parents determine that AP courses will be a stretch for their teenagers, they might want to encourage their teenager to take just one at a time. Even the most elite colleges don’t expect applicants to take every AP class available.

Jane Parent, former editor at Your Teen, is the parent of three.

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