Thirty years ago, AP classes were taken by only a select few students. Being in even one garnered a certain kind of respect, and being in multiple AP classes was considered a stunning accomplishment. Today, most students are now expected to take multiple AP classes, and “serious, high-achieving students” are expected to take several, often with 3 or more in a single year. Many guidance counselors and teachers push for as much as the student can possibly bear, and many parents happily back up this plan, feeling sure that they are helping secure a solid college admission for their child.
Let’s look at who wins in this situation.The College Board profits from as many tests given as possible (as well as maximum sales of materials). The tutoring business profits because so many kids are in AP classes they can’t actually manage. In some cases, the schools even profit based on numbers enrolled and certainly like being able to say xx% of their students are enrolled in AP classes. The one party that doesn’t consistently benefit here is the student.
When colleges look at an application, they start with the unweighted grade point average and their SAT or ACT scores. You can get a good idea what specific colleges expect by using the College Board College Search. Those things needs to be in a range of interest to them before they will look at the rest of the details – so if the gpa has dropped too low as a result of taking too many incredibly hard classes, colleges will never see what the classes were and say “oh, well that’s okay then, they took very hard classes”. They will just move on to the next application. Any course a student gets a C in does more damage to their GPA than the class is worth. Colleges aren’t interested in knowing how many hard classes your child can take and scrape by in – they would rather see how many they can handle effectively while maintaining their other classes and activities. Even if they look at the details of your child’s transcript, it still hurts them to have many AP classes and a less than notable grade point average. They will assume one of two things is true – that your child is being madly pushed along by you (the Tiger Mom approach can backfire) and will collapse when trying to function independently at college, or that your child madly pushes themselves valuing class status over realism and will sign up for the hardest possible courses in college even if they cannot handle them. What they want is a student who is goal-oriented but has a realistic understanding of their abilities, limits and time restraints – a student who will be able to make consistent practical choices that allow for a smooth college experience and a timely graduation.
Please understand, I am not saying “go easier on your kid instead of worrying about college”. I am saying that going easier on your kid is actually the best way to get them into college, and to prepare them with the right mindset for succeeding there. My general guideline is that they should not take more than 1 as a sophomore and not more than 2 as a junior, unless they are truly both naturally skilled and highly motivated in all the AP subjects they will be taking. Senior year AP classes are the most over-rated of all; the student won’t have a grade or an AP score in time for the admissions process application. The ONLY reason to ever take a senior AP class is because you very realistically expect to earn college credit with the scores and you have such a great GPA that a small tumble won’t hurt you if the class gets rougher than anticipated.
Finally, let’s say you read all this but quite understandably thought “my guidance counselor or teacher wouldn’t mislead me, I am going to take 5 AP classes next year” and then later start to wonder if maybe that was a bad idea. Here are some warning signs to watch for. If the grade slips to a B in a math or science AP, or a C in any other AP, get whatever help you need to bring up the grade immediately. If you are capable of doing the material, get serious about studying effectively and consistently. If you are studying a lot and it isn’t enough, or have trouble with the material, get a parent or tutor to help you. Four hours a week with guidance from someone who knows the material very well can help you more than 16 hours of independent studying if you feel lost. If your grade is solidly in the A/B range but you feel nervous about the actual exam, get some released versions of their tests from the College Board Store . Practice during winter break, and then again during spring break. Doing well on the actual test is essential – do not even send AP scores below a 3. Yes, even if you get an A in the class. From the college’s point of view, an A and a 1 or a 2 means one of a few things – that your school hands out As like candy or that your school has very poor AP teachers. Neither idea is going to make you seem appealing to that college. If you need to know exactly what score is required and what credit will be awarded, you can look up colleges’ specific requirements with this Credit Policy Search.