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Are AP Classes Worth It: Why Take AP Classes At All?

This morning my high school senior rose with the dawn and left home early to get to school for his first AP test in what promises to be a long, mentally draining week. And for another AP week, I will reflect upon the following question: what was the point of all that, again? Are AP courses worth it?

We have had kids in high school for a total of 12 years. I’ve heard all the reasons why high school students should take advanced placement classes.

Reasons For Taking AP Classes (that didn’t work for us)

  1. AP classes demonstrate academic excellence and achievement.
  2. They show colleges that the student is capable of successfully meeting the demands of a rigorous college curriculum.
  3. They set an applicant apart from others seeking to gain admission to an elite college.
  4. AP credits will help a student place out of introductory courses in college.

Three kids, ten AP tests, three rounds of college admissions, and at least $920 in fees later, I can say this for certain: not one of those reasons applied to us. Not one.

Do we need an AP test to do demonstrate achievement?

  1. Our kids attended selective high schools with excellent reputations. They had four years of grades, teacher recommendations, and honors classes to demonstrate achievement.
  2. They also took the PSAT, the SAT, and the ACT. Aren’t standardized tests supposed to be the apples-to-apples comparisons that colleges need to gauge achievement in applicants from different high schools?

AP exams are no guarantee of acceptance to elite colleges. Of the 42,749 applicants to Harvard last year, only 1,962 were accepted—and you can bet all those rejected students took loads of AP courses. So were those AP courses worth it? I’ve never been a big believer, anyway, in the idea that college is the end-all, be-all that determines your career trajectory or future success. After all, only 30 percent of American-born Fortune 500 CEOs attended an elite college.

Our three kids applied to engineering and computer science programs. As the Wall Street Journal has written, for fields like science, technology, engineering, and math, “it largely doesn’t matter whether students go to a prestigious, expensive school or a low-priced one. Expected earnings turn out the same. So, families may be wasting money by chasing an expensive diploma in those fields.”

Turns out, AP classes may not be such a great idea anyway.

An increasing number of colleges—even elite ones—are declining to accept AP credits altogether or limiting the number they’ll accept. Despite the rigor, a high school AP class is not the same educational experience as a college course.

Even smart, well-prepared college freshmen might be better off in the long run taking the introductory courses. In high school, our oldest son took AP BC Calc, the highest level of math offered at his school. He received a score of 5 on the test. When it came time to select classes for his freshman year, that 5 on his AP exam enabled him to place out of Calculus I. With misplaced confidence, my son went against the advice of his college academic counselor and registered instead for Calculus II.

Guess what? Turns out that college Calc goes into much greater depth than high school Calc. Our son barely escaped with a C. Now he says that if he could do it over again, he would have started in Calculus I, where he would have ensured that he was grounded in the fundamentals, and probably would have received a better grade, too.

Another son took the AP Literature exam, but he couldn’t use the credit after all.

His university determined that college freshmen can’t write very well. Now every freshman is required to take a basic writing course. Maybe we should focus more on high school students mastering basic competencies in high school before focusing on placing out of college courses.

I know that the College Board has profited handsomely from our AP experiences. In 2016, the fee for each AP exam was $92. Perhaps it is the price to play in the college admissions rat race. But in retrospect, I wonder if my kids really needed the extra workload, stress, and pressure. Maybe we would have been better off if they had gotten a little more sleep instead.

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.