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Getting into College Without Advanced Placement / AP Classes

is it possible?

I received an e-mail from a parent in Florida who asked a question so important that I wanted to answer directly on this site.

Dear Mr. Tabor:

Thank you for your informative website. My 10th grade daughter is imploding because she is convinced she is not going to get into college (she is planning on attending a Florida university). All of her academic classes are honors level but not AP. She does not at this time have any interest in taking an AP class, however, she is feeling pressured to do so. The faculty and administration at her high school are very eager in pushing students to take these and it is represented as the best means to get into college.

She is an excellent student academically. However, she is not a “joiner” (referring to clubs, etc) and feels it would be hypocritical to join a club just to put it on a college application. In short, she is a lovely, quiet girl who is very smart but absolutely convinced that no Florida University will take her. I expect she will score very highly on the PSAT and the SAT when the time comes. Do you have anything I can tell her to ease her stress level down a notch? She wants to go to FSU (we have two alumni in the family) but, as I said, is convinced that without a resume full of clubs, sports, charity work and AP classes, no college will want her. The stress put on these kids from day one of high school is outrageous in my opinion. Thank you again for your time.

I’ll start at the end.

The stress put on these kids from day one of high school is outrageous in my opinion.

Absolutely – every time I encounter a parent or student who is terribly stressed about college admissions, I can’t help but think of the massive, unfounded pressure that pokes, prods and pulls all of us in 100 different directions.

The simple truth is that, as I said, the pressure is unfounded. It isn’t necessary and it comes from a misunderstanding of the purpose of higher education and how colleges/universities function.

In April I wrote a piece called Why Seth Godin and the Wall Street Journal are Wrong About College Admissions that reacted to a short bit written by Godin, a sharp, highly-acclaimed business/marketing writer, and a WSJ article about college admissions [Godin also responded in the comments]. I followed it up with Defeating the College Admissions Hysteria, Part II which links to Kevin Carey’s [Education Sector] analysis that mirrors my points.

But no matter how often you think, “Ok, relax…” it’s tough to turn that theory into practice. Going to college deserves the label of a “high-stakes” proposition. It’s an important step.

Students are told wrongly that it’s incredibly difficult to get into college and that in order to be accepted to a good school they have to outperform everyone on the transcript and resume. That’s not reality.

First, there’s a college for everybody – several colleges for everybody. There are 2,600+ colleges and universities in the United States that cover the entire range of abilities and interests within each class of applicants. If you can’t find a few matches, you haven’t looked hard enough.

Second, the stress that every student needs to be an AP Scholar to compete in the admissions process is undue. Not every school offers AP curricula and many that do fail to offer it widely or require students to take the exams. Take Richmond, VA – their AP test-takers comprise .01% of the student body. The point is that one can stand out in the admissions crowd without loading up on AP courses for the sake of gaming the admissions process.

College admissions committees do take into account the relative rigor of one’s curriculum. Has a student taken the most challenging classes available to them? Does their exemplary GPA reflect a mastery of seminal, difficult subjects, or did they take the easiest path they could?

Having said that, taking AP courses for the sake of choosing the most difficult, relevant curriculum will likely come at the expense of other classes, activities and interests. I wrote the other day about the benefits of taking welding in high school. I was able to continue both professionally and academically using those skills. Even with the perspective I have now, I wouldn’t trade welding for AP Bio.

An Honors curriculum is demanding and serves as a solid college prep track – admissions committees know this. They know that it’s a step above the norm. Mixed with solid SAT/ACT scores and insightful recommendations, a candidate can demonstrate his or her abilities well and impress an admissions committee. There’s no demonstrable difference between a student who takes AP classes but doesn’t prove themselves on the exam and an applicant from the Honors track.

I’d suggest that every Honors-level student give a shot at one AP class if it’s available to them and fits in their schedule – the benefits are worthwhile and taking academic challenges is an important step in one’s development – but it’s unlikely to make or break an Honors-level applicant to a good school.

As for extracurriculars, everyone’s got them. Every student does something with their time after school and nearly all interests can be related to academic potential. Be frank about how you spend your time even if it doesn’t seem to be impressive.

I wrote a few months ago about filling gaps in a college application. The student in this article was interested in online gambling which, on the surface, seems like a difficult hobby to present. I explained that the hobby demonstrates an extra-academic interest in statistics, probability and such advanced concepts as the implicit application of Bayes’ Theorem. It’s not about spin, it’s about placing the proper value on your interests.

Figure out what you do with your time and why it matters – don’t worry about putting your time into what you think a college will place value on. That’s no way to live.

There’s no shortage of SADD members, student council representatives and dance committee volunteers applying to good schools. In a way, those applicants can come across as incredibly similar to one another. If there’s one thing that makes an admissions officer at a large research university yawn, it’s the garden-variety “joiner.” I’d likely be more interested in a student who read in her spare time than one who participated in application-padding clubs; the answer to, “What do you read and why do you spend so much time doing it?” is going to be more interesting and expository than to, “So, why did you want to plan the prom?” [I'm not suggesting that any of these activities aren't valuable, just that there's no perfect formula for admission.]

And, really, explaining why you aren’t necessarily a “joiner” isn’t a bad personal statement topic at all.

Applicants need to be themselves. The idea is to package yourself the best you can with essays, recommendations and some numbers – you want them to see who you are, what you’ve done and what you’re capable of doing. If an admissions officer sees you, he can decide whether your selection will be a mutually beneficial relationship – it’s a marriage both parties appreciate. If you play the admissions game – not only spending your time on things in which you aren’t interested, but also presenting yourself as the candidate you think they want – you’re far less likely to land in a situation that’s right for you.

There are so many factors that add up to one’s candidacy for admission that there’s no reason to worry about any particular step in the process. Get the most out of your courses, challenge yourself appropriately with curriculum, prepare for and take standardized tests and use your time as you see fit – your recommendations will support those efforts and your application will, taken as a whole, reflect you well.

The short answer? Yes, your daughter will absolutely get into a Florida school that is both right for her and that she wants to attend.

8 Responses to “Getting into College Without Advanced Placement / AP Classes”

  1. Do good on the ACT and you won’t have any problems getting in to many colleges… atleast my experience.

  2. Matthew says:

    A strong performance on the ACT/SAT can go a long way to demonstrate a candidate’s potential, but as many colleges move toward weighing standardized test scores as less important, an applicant needs to support those scores as much as possible – even if they’re high.

  3. Liz D. says:

    Here’s some data for your correspondent:

    My daughter attended an academically rigorous high school. She had a few honors classes, no APs, a strong SAT, and a 3.5 gradepoint average. She competed year-round in one sport, and earned her Tae Kwon Do black-belt her senior year, as well as appearing in several school theater productions and a strong record in community service. She applied to, and was accepted at the University of Puget Sound, Willamette University, University of Denver, Wheaton College (MA), and Clark University. She enrolled at Clark this fall and is doing well.

  4. Onemorecup says:

    Matt:

    Yet again another great article spewing the truth in just about all facets of higher education.

    For Liz D. Lovely synopsis regarding your daughter; moreover, as educators, she is why we love teaching. Did you mean Lewis & Clark University?

    Here comes my two cents: Sounds like your 10th grader is doing just fine. Although, I too would suggest that she chills-out just a bit insofar as the amount of obsessing is flat out not worth it.

    As far as Florida is concerned, there are plenty of good upwards of great schools there which in my humble opinion she will not have difficulty getting into. There certainly couldn’t be a problem with FSU!

    And of course I do agree with Matt’s assessment: Although I find very little difference between AP, IB, or Honors programs, Matt does make a great point about at least trying one. It is tantamount that she enrolls into one that she likes and has passion about.

    Thanks for bring this to the right source and I do feel privileged to submit an answer. Cheers!

    P. Schilling, Ed.D.

  5. Maya Frost says:

    Matt!

    I’m disappointed. You provided the standard hand-holding response to that question, but missed the opportunity to offer an epiphany.

    Here it is: step off the track completely.

    Skip the SAT. It’s possible to get an outrageously relevant high school and college education without the angst. Discover ways to get IGNITED by what you’re learning and then go deeper.

    It sounds radical, but thousands of savvy students (and parents) are already stepping off the SAT/AP/GPA path and figuring out how to catapult forward by going in a slightly different direction.

    Honestly, telling students to be themselves and stop worrying while letting them know that they still have to play in the same game as everyone else is doing them a huge disservice.

    I’m writing a book on this topic. Check out http://www.CreativeU.wordpress.com for more info–and epiphanies!

    Best,
    Maya

  6. Maya Frost says:

    Oops…I meant to say “skip the AP courses” instead of “Skip the SAT”–although I encourage students to skip BOTH. (“Skip the SAT” is part of the title of my book!)

    The fact is that getting into college by following the traditional path just isn’t the smartest move for many students. Rather than fret about taking more or fewer AP courses, jump into college courses instead. Yes, admissions folks look to see if you’re taking advantage of the highest level of courses available to you, and it’s important to recognize that a real honest-to-goodness college course is a step up from a watered-down AP course that others are using to pad their applications.

    If you want to get your best education AND show that you are serious about learning and pursuing education for its own sake, don’t follow the blinders-on path. Dare to step forward and discover those talents and interests not likely to be sparked in a high school class you’re taking because someone told you it would help you get into college.

    Thanks, Matt! I love your blog and almost always agree with you, but I just couldn’t let this one slide. ;-)

    Cheers,

    Maya
    Maya@MassageYourMind.com

  7. Liz D. says:

    Onemorecup, thanks for the compliment. My daughter is enrolled at Clark University in Worcester, MA. It’s one of Loren Pope’s Colleges that Change Lives. There’s another consortium, Colleges of Distinction

    I agree with Maya — fall in love with some aspect of learning, rather than head-hunting — it’s the royal road to real learning.

    Are you familiar with Lloyd Thacker’s Education Conservancy?

  8. Connnie DeYesso says:

    I have to 14 year olds going into 9th grade. The HS offers a Votec but they will miss out on a few core courses. Should they atten this even if they want to go to go to college?

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