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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 twelve years. I’ve heard all the reasons why high school students should take advanced placement classes. AP classes demonstrate academic excellence and achievement. They show colleges that the student is capable of successfully meeting the demands of a rigorous college curriculum. They set an applicant apart from others seeking to gain admission to an elite college. 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.

The Rationale for AP Tests

Demonstrating Excellence

Do we need an AP test to do this? First, our kids attended selective high schools with excellent reputations. They had four years of grades, teacher recommendations, and honors classes to demonstrate achievement. Second, like other high school students, 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? Why do we need another expensive three-hour test to do the same thing? Did my daughter need three hours of APUSH homework every night sophomore year? Did she need six hours of sleep (on a good night) to demonstrate that she was ready for college?

Elite College Admissions

Elite colleges in the United States are loosely defined as the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, and CalTech. We didn’t apply to any. Even if we had, AP exams are no guarantee of acceptance. Of the 37,000 applicants to Harvard last year, only 1,990 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 be-all, end-all that determines your career trajectory or future success. After all, only 30 percent of American-born Fortune 500 CEOs attended an elite college. And our three kids applied to engineering and computer science programs. The elite college price tag didn’t make financial sense to us.

As the Wall Street Journal wrote a few months ago, 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.” Although our kids were admitted into selective programs, it’s unclear whether that AP Art History credit really had any impact on any admissions decisions.

Placement Out of Introductory Classes

Turns out, this 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 because a high school AP class isn’t the same caliber educational experience as a college course. Many high school students are simply not prepared for college, even in basic skills, much less qualified to place into upper level courses. One in five college students need remedial courses.

Are AP Classes Worth It?

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, which was the highest level of math instruction offered at his school. He received a score of 5 on the test. When it came time to select classes for his freshman year of engineering courses, that 5 on his AP exam gave him a sort of false confidence that he could skip Calculus I. That’s why he took it in high school, right? Against the advice of his college academic counselor, he registered instead for Calculus II.

And guess what. He was not prepared for it. It turns out that college courses go into much greater depth on concepts that you may have only spent two or three class periods on in high school (because you had so much material to get through to stay on schedule for the AP test). The professor assumed that students already knew the ins and outs of derivatives and functions. He didn’t lecture on those concepts. And the professor didn’t speak English well, which apparently also made learning Calculus II extra challenging. 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.

They Weren’t For Us

Even though our son will be taking the AP Literature exam tomorrow, he can’t use the credit after all. His university has recently determined that college freshmen can’t write very well. Now it requires a basic writing course for every freshman. So he got to read “The Sound and the Fury” and the poetry of Wallace Stevens, but apparently only for personal enrichment and not for college credit. Here’s a thought: maybe we should focus more on high school students mastering basic competencies in high school before we concern ourselves with them 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 was simply the price that you now have to pay to run 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 all been better off if they had gotten a little more sleep instead.

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.