Are Advanced Placement / AP Courses Important in College Admissions?

what's the value in Advanced Placement / AP?

I use Google Alerts to track news and blog articles on several different topics – it’s a handy way to keep up with current issues in education. Yesterday I received an alert from College Planning Specialists called A.P. Classes: Are These Courses as Important as Your Guidance Councilor [sic] Claims? I normally wouldn’t respond to an education article in which “counselor” is spelled incorrectly in the title, but this piece’s content is representative of the attitudes expressed in too much of the professional analysis of AP’s role in the college admissions process. I’ll react to each paragraph.

AP courses, the most advanced college prep classes available at the high school level, may have unforeseen detrimental effects upon a student’s ability to gain entrance into a top flight university. Often thought of as invaluable tools in the quest to impress discerning university admissions officers, AP classes are being evaluated differently by high schools than they are by universities.

AP courses are, indeed, the most advanced curriculum readily available to talented, high-achieving high school students. The AP curriculum isn’t designed to impress admissions officers, though; it’s designed to give appropriate coursework opportunities to students who can – and want to – handle the material. Like any challenging endeavor in academia, AP courses can be invaluable or detrimental – that much is true. And consequently, any challenge is interpreted differently by each stakeholder in the educational process.

The biggest pitfall remains the over scheduling of AP courses during a high school students [sic] curriculum. The majority of intelligent high school kids can and do excel in college level AP courses. The problems arise when students take 3-4-5 AP courses during a particular semester. More often than not one of these classes is far too difficult for the student; consequently the student dedicates huge chunks of time to one course. This time disparity usually leads to suffering grades in all a student’s course work.

Scheduling AP classes to fit in the increasingly-demanding, cramped lives of college-bound high schoolers is an issue that needs to be considered in every individual case. However, scheduling has nothing to do with the AP classes themselves or the value they bring to a student’s education. When making that decision, the focus should not be on grades – the most important factor is the student’s education. Parents, counselors and students need to ask, “Is this beneficial to the student’s education?” instead of, “Will this affect his GPA?” That is, if the decision-makers are committed to education rather than playing the admissions game.

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending upon your point of view, grades remain the driving force behind college admissions. The real catch and pitfall is that MOST colleges do not accept “weight” GPA’s when considering a student for admission. The high school gives added credit for difficulty but the colleges do not consider the difficulty level of AP course work when factoring in GPA for admissions according to Ron Caruthers of College Planning Specialists.

This interpretation depends on how you view the purpose of higher education. Is it to receive a degree or to prepare yourself to achieve whatever goals you’ve set – or may set in the future? Essentially, it’s a decision to play the game or commit to education. And yes, there’s a difference.

College admissions officers aren’t dumb. They know the difference between applicant A, who has a 4.0 and took two Advanced Placement / AP classes and applicant B, who has a 3.2 and took seven APs. Based on just that information, who would you rather matriculate? Me too.

Most competitive institutions simply can’t spend hours poring over each submission, but they’ve done this before – thousands of times a year. They look at what’s behind that GPA. And, if an admissions office only analyzes you on the surface, throwing numbers and information into an aggregating formula and making their decision, do you really want to go there?

Again, it’s about matching up your interests and background with the educational opportunities an institution has to offer – not about playing the game.

Caruthers goes on to state that high school admissions councilors [sic] are telling only half the truth when they advise their students to load up on AP course work. High schools do weight AP course grades much higher than normal high school classes; often an AP course “B” grade is counted as an “A” by many high schools. Unfortunately colleges count all grades equally meaning an “A” is an “A” and a “B” is a “B.”

Caruthers states that the reason for this disparity is that “most high schools are ranked by the number of students taking AP courses. . . ” consequently it is to the high schools’ advantage to push students to take AP courses regardless of the effects it may have on those students.

Anyone who’s dipped a toe into public education’s icy waters knows the methodology behind Newsweek’s rankings – and the value those rankings do and don’t carry. Admissions officers don’t take these rankings seriously. That’s why they request that a student’s guidance counselor submit a school profile with the application. That profile tells them what they need to know – if they don’t know it already – about a school’s enrollment, achievement, etc. It gives them context within which they can evaluate a candidate’s application.

It’s true that schools’ AP offerings are driven by many factors – mostly benevolent. But claiming that students’ educations are harmed out of a sinister desire to raise a school’s [irrelevant] profile does a disservice to all who are involved in public education.

What is the right answer in regards to AP course work for your student? As a rule of thumb, have a student take as many AP courses as they can without hurting their GPA. It is a tough call as AP courses have benefits, challenging curriculum-time management-higher expectations, but remember that in the college admissions game-GPA is king.

Not my thumb. A student should take as many AP classes as he can handle in such a way that he masters the curriculum. That’s the value of an AP course; GPA is a secondary consideration at best. Though a GPA should, in theory, be a certification of a student’s knowledge and performance, that is seldom true. I know it, teachers know it, students know it, administrators know it, those combating grade inflation know it – and so do college admissions officers.

And if GPA is King, you don’t want to be in that castle. Wouldn’t you rather focus on getting an education?

victorian line

Dowling is a private Long Island college offering undergraduate and graduate degrees through our four schools: Business, Education, Arts and Sciences and Aviation.

4 Responses to “Are Advanced Placement / AP Courses Important in College Admissions?”

  1. Miss Profe says:

    Matt, have you talked recently with a group of high school students enrolled in AP courses? The majority will tell you that they’re doing it to impress college admissions officers, and thay they “look good” on the high school transcript. A very small percentage are doing it because of the learning value. Why do you think students are loading up on three to five AP course at one time? It’s not because they’re hungry for knowledge. And the burn-out and stress is incredible in the process.

    Speaking of learning value: AP courses are test-driven courses. Depending on the merits one places in test-driven curriculum will depend on the value one places on AP courses.

    With respect to AP courses and their impact on GPA, how many Ivy-League and Little Ivy colleges and universities would look at a student with a 2.0 GPA, but waive the GPA because the student enrolled in a glutton of AP courses? Are you able to provide examples?

    Lastly, there are schools out there – many in fact – which do not offer AP courses and for a variety of reasons. Does that mean, therefore, that a student who has enrolled in the most challenging program offered by her school and has earned a very high GPA is viewed as a less desirable applicant than a student with a lower GPA and who has enrolled in AP courses?

  2. Matthew says:

    I have, Profe – throughout March I spoke to half a dozen AP classes about why they should/shouldn’t enroll in future APs and how they might approach the May tests. Far too many take AP classes for all the wrong reasons just as you have pointed out.

    That’s the fault not of the students, but of the teachers and administrators who have twisted the school culture and misunderstand the value of AP, IB, Cambridge, Community College courses and additional summer coursework.

    APs are most definitely not test-driven courses, though the vast majority of them are taught that way. It isn’t necessary. One can teach an AP course, even with an AP-approved curriculum, without teaching to the test – and the students can still score very well.

    Speaking to your last point about the desirability of students in different circumstances, the short answer is yes, depending on the mission of the college. I think of it the same way I think of high-level sports, which is the most meritocratic institution we’ve got. Pardon the vignette…

    I excelled in a sport that my high school didn’t offer. I did the best I could in this area, but I wasn’t world-class when compared to those who had training in established, competitive programs. Colleges didn’t look at me seriously – not because I didn’t have the “upside” potential, but because I wasn’t good enough at the time and there were many others who were. I was passed over and rightly so. I had to take a different path and 7 years later I was a professional in that sport. It worked out alright.

    The point is that I was a less desirable applicant not because I didn’t have the potential, but because there were others who were already past that point. I don’t fault those schools for not recruiting me. I also don’t fault schools who want the best and most accomplished while others commit to potentially successful students.

  3. Ice9 says:

    It is ‘counselor,’ so put your sic away–alright? (sic). Glad to hear you talked to AP students about…whatever…but have you taught any for any realistic length of time? Your self-absorbed blather (and high-ticket remora act) is central to what is wrong with our system now. Glad to know that Doctor Erica PhD says we should take the test. She is the champ of program-inflation and teach-to-the-test. Ask her if she is still teaching five sections of AP at once back at OHS, and ask yourself: how can a teacher do a good job with AP-caliber students when she has 150 of them at once?
    I certainly hope we’re at the end of all that self-reliance/marketplace/competition crap. The noblitiy of the nation is vested in self-abnegation in public service, which is what teachers (and other folks, and not you) do best. Oh, and not Bill O’Reilly, who is a world-class hypocrite. Perlstein nailed it in “Tested”. This whole corrupt structure, and all the teat-squeezing sycophants, have done terrible damage to a great public institution. It’s disgraceful.

  4. Matthew says:


    I wanted to point you to a comment on one of the links in this article:

    “My mistake in spelling it “councilor” points out that I often learn from my mistakes no matter how painful!”

    Spellcheck corrected that properly to “Counselor” when I edited/saved this entry to fix a link some time back. So, the sic remained next to the correction – apologies for missing that. I changed it back manually to avoid any confusion.

    “… ask yourself: how can a teacher do a good job with AP-caliber students when she has 150 of them at once?”

    It’s what college professors do every day.

    You disapprove of quite a few things – why not start a blog?

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