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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.

College Admissions Question and Answer, Volume 2

College Admissions Question and Answer, Volume 2 addresses the importance of AP exam results, choosing a major and transferring.

Question #4: How important are AP [Advanced Placement] exam results to colleges? Do the results affect their decision on acceptance if one does poorly? By the way, I am asking this prior to opening my AP grades…

Answer: Scores on AP exams matter. The AP exam is the standard certification that shows how well you know a subject. Scoring 3 or higher shows colleges that you can handle college-level work, and highly-selective schools [like the Ivies] take few risks on admitting students who may or may not be able to complete a degree.

Having said that, not getting at least a 3 on an AP exam isn’t the end of the world. There are lots of reasons that students don’t get 3+, and those reasons range from having bad a teacher in that specific subject to being overwhelmed by taking too many challenging courses. Colleges understand that even smart, high-achieving students pull a stinker now and again. And remember – many students take AP courses without even taking the exam, so at least you took the tests.

AP exam scores are less important than other indicators of your abilities – namely grades [which seem to be becoming even more important as an indicator of your future academic success]. So, if you open your envelope and find high scores, well done – you’ll test out of some courses and get a few extra credits. If you fall short of a 3, you might have to take more intro. courses than you’d like, but you’ll still be at a top-tier school.


Question #5: What is a good college major for me?

  • I don’t want to teach
  • I’m okay with the sciences (physical and social)
  • I’m average in math
  • I am good at the arts (but I don’t know how competitive that market is)
  • I have good reading comprehension

Answer: First, I have to assume that you aren’t currently a college student. If you are, you should talk to your best professors – not necessarily your academic advisers – about possible majors.

There are lots of majors that might interest you and fit your best qualities. Though all I know about you comes from the details you listed in your question, I would suggest choosing a college with a strong liberal arts program that will give you the skills you need to succeed in any course of study.

Undergraduate education is mostly about basic skills – it’s about honing your reading, writing, thinking and analytical skills [unless you're in a major that requires highly-specific skills like certain labwork or advanced foreign language study]. You can develop all of these in almost any undergraduate discipline.

If you go to a large university, you can spend a year in a liberal arts program with an undeclared major – along the way you can decide what track you’d like to take. If you decide that you want to transfer to another college/school within that university, you can do it [providing you meet whatever requirements they have]. That way if you decide to focus on management [as an example] after your freshman year, you can transfer into the appropriate school and have most of your required liberal arts courses taken care of already.

You have lots and lots of options. If you don’t want to narrow it down to one thing, remember that your options include double majoring, adding minor concentrations, or even combining two disciplines into one course of study.

I’d talk to good teachers you’ve had and generally successful people to ask what they think. If you can, take a course or two at a local college or community college – it’ll help you decide what you do and don’t enjoy. In short, gather as much information as you can and you’ll find that choosing a college major is easier than it seems right now.


Question #6: Would I have a chance of getting into Boston University as a transfer student?

I graduated from a very prestigious high school with mediocre grades (mostly Bs, some As, one or two Cs in freshman year). I got 1800 on my SAT with high scores in English and Writing and a below average score in math. I went on to go to the University of New Hampshire and did pretty well there. I took 8 classes, and recieved 2 As, 1 A-, 3 Bs, 1 B-, and 1 C-. I am very concerned about the C-. Do you think I would have a chance in getting into Boston University as a transfer student? I have 3 family members that currently go there and I have strong recommendations from both high school and college. Do I have a chance or is it not worth my time to apply?

Answer: In the interest of full disclosure here, you should know that I got my degrees from Boston University.

It sounds as though your pre-college transcript is worth consideration and your coursework at UNH was decent [your GPA is slightly below the cum laude cutoff, but not by too much].

In terms of your UNH grades, the C- isn’t necessarily a big deal, though if your C- was in Calculus and you’re trying to transfer to BU’s College of Engineering, it’s not so hot. I assume the poor grade was in a difficult class outside of the area you’ll focus on. Even if it’s in the area you want to study, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker – I’d just write an addendum to the transfer application that explains why it was a C-.

The recommendations are very important, especially from professors at UNH – they mean a great deal more than any number of family members currently attending. My advice would be to choose a specific program/course of study at Boston University. You will be able to make a much stronger case by saying, “You have an excellent program in _______ that I can’t get anywhere else,” than just presenting yourself as someone who didn’t like their first school and is looking for something better.

To sum this up, it’s absolutely worth your time to apply. Not only does it sound like you can make a good case for admission, but you should also apply even if it’s a long-shot. Isn’t it worth spending $70 or so on a transfer application just for the peace of mind you’ll have when you’ll stop wondering, “What if…?”

Hopefully in a few years you’ll be a fellow alum. Good luck!


If you have a question about college or graduate school admissions, e-mail for inclusion in future columns.

For more College Admissions Q&A, visit the archives.

College Admissions Question and Answer, Volume 1

Question #1: Is a 2.78 GPA considered good? I have 2 minors as well. the first two years i bombed, after that good grades. My major is East asian studies and my minors are history and political science.

Answer: A GPA below 3.00 isn’t spectacular – that’s why a GPA below 3.00 isn’t listed on a resume. It’s ok, though – you’ll live. Lots and lots of people do fine without graduating with honors. It is especially excusable given that you challenged yourself with two minors.

Regarding whether employers will care about your GPA, some do and some don’t. Employers are increasingly ignoring GPA. I recently commented on a piece about GPA and jobs at the following link:

GPA Not Crucial to Employers, C Students Get Jobs Anyway

Just focus on working hard, networking and doing the best you can with the classes you have left. Then repeat that process with all jobs – work experience matters so much because it’s the real manifestation of your skills.

And remember, an upward trend is a good thing – few graduate admissions officers punish a candidate too much for a rough freshman year as long as they demonstrate maturity by pulling out of it and building accomplishments throughout their adult life. Don’t forget – you can also take some classes after you graduate to show employers and graduate schools that you’re capable of doing the required work at a high level.


Question #2: What kind of classes should I take in High School? I’m currently a freshman, and I’m going to be a sophomore next year. I hope to start a certain kind of engineering, and I’m planning to go to Cal Tech or MIT with it. Here’s the list of my high school’s graduation requirements and the classes:

Required Courses: English, 8 Semesters/40 credits; Mathematics (Geometry required) 4 Semesters/20 credits; Science, 6 Semesters/30credits; Physical Education, 4 Semesters/20credits; Geography, 1 Semester/5 credits; World History, 2 Semesters/10 credits; United States History, 2 Semesters/10 credits; American Government, 1 Semester/5 credits, Economics, 1 Semester/5 credits; Applied Art (Business, Technical Education, Life Skills, Vocational Education, Research and Technology), 1 Semester/5 Credits; Visual/Performing Arts and Foreign Language, 2 Semesters/10 credits; Foreign Language or Applied Art, 2 Semesters/10 credits

AP and Honors classes: Biology AP, Biology H, Calculus AP –AB, BC, Chemistry AP, Chemistry H, Computer Science AP, English H 1,2,3, Pre Calc. H, Psychology H, Physics, H, AP.

Answer: Without knowing you personally, I can still make a few recommendations here. Obviously, you’ve got to meet your requirements for graduation. They seem to be pretty sound, too – taking all those classes should prepare you well for any college you’d like to attend. It’s a fairly standard college prep curriculum.

If you want to focus on engineering, I’d recommend challenging yourself with as many AP classes as you can handle in Math and Science. Be sure not to become one-dimensional, though; top schools like Cal Tech and MIT want engineers who can write, too, and so do the employers you’ll be courting upon graduation. Honors Pre-Calculus followed by AP Calculus BC would serve you well on the math side, while AP Physics and AP Chemistry should be your minimum goal with science.

You have a few years left, so don’t start stressing out too much now. If I were you, I’d look into some summer enrichment programs in the sciences, maybe even a specific engineering program. It will help you determine what aspects of engineering you really enjoy and make class selection [and the entire college process] a lot easier.


Question #3: What do you think i should focus on in college? I’m a smart 13 year old girl and I’m best at english and reading comprehension. I’ve won alot of state writing competitions, too. I read at a very high level. I’m also ok at math and very good at art. I’m interested in marine biology. My dad says that when you go to college, you have to focus on one thing. I know I have a long time to decide, but he says its never to early to think about it. I have been lately, and I was wondering what you think, based on the facts about me above, what you think I should think about focusing on?

Answer: Your dad is right – you will generally have to choose a major or concentration when you go to college. About 1/3 of your classes will be in this area, so it is a good idea to focus on something in which you have a deep interest. It sounds like you’re on your way to becoming an accomplished writer – what about a major in English, Literature or a closely related field?

Even though you’ll choose a major, you’ll still have to take courses in lots of different areas – it’s called a Liberal Arts education, a phrase you’ll hear often over the next few years. It’s important to know about math, science, history, art and other topics regardless of what you’re interested in doing later in life. No matter what classes you take, you’ll learn how to read, write, think and communicate better. Those are skills that will be valuable no matter what career you choose in the future.

Don’t worry too much about which particular major you’ll choose in college – remember, you can always change them. Also, if you find that you want to focus on a very specific area, you can spend your time on that when you’re in graduate school. The important thing at this point is to make sure that you’re challenging yourself in all subjects. The more you challenge yourself now, the easier it will be to choose your direction further down the road.

It’s excellent that you’re already thinking about this topic. You’re already ahead of almost every other person your age. Keep it up!


If you have a question about college or graduate school admissions, e-mail for inclusion in future columns.

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?

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