Pros and Cons of Taking AP Classes
As many parents of high school students know, the pressure to have your student get into a good college can be fierce. And one strategy that many students use to stand out is to take as many Advanced Placement classes as possible throughout their high school careers.
If you’re unfamiliar, here’s how AP classes work: High schools offer courses that present college-level curriculum and instruction. According to the College Board (the organization that administers both AP Exams and the SAT), any course that a school labels “AP” must go through a course audit to ensure the curriculum meets specific standards for college-level work.
At the end of the year, if a student has taken an AP class in a given subject, he or she may choose to sit for that AP Exam. The exams are standardized and include both multiple choice and essay questions. They are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, and most colleges offer course credit for any student who receives a 4 or a 5 on the test. (Some colleges offer credit for scores of 3 and above).
Since the AP program was first founded in 1954, the prevalence of AP-level classes around the country has skyrocketed. The numbers have risen most dramatically in the last ten years. For example, in 2017, more than 1.17 million high school seniors took AP Exams in public high schools nationwide, up from 691,437 seniors in 2007.
In Chicago, a total of 21 CPS high schools now offer AP classes, and many schools offer multiple AP classes in each subject, meaning students can take as many as five AP classes at a time.
Proponents say expanding access to AP classes is good for students because it pushes them to learn more rigorous material, helps them compete with others applying to college, and helps them save money once they get to college because they can take fewer classes and even graduate early.
But others say the pressure for students to pack their schedules with AP classes causes undue stress and sets some students up to fail by pushing them to take classes that are over their heads.
So as a parent, how can you best decide whether an AP class is right for your child? Here are some things to consider:
- AP classes can help you graduate early from college
If you score a 4 or a 5 on an AP test, most colleges will grant you course credit, allowing you to get through your course requirements more quickly. For example, Sarah, a mom of a 2013 graduate of Evanston Township High School, says her daughter was able to graduate early from Bryn Mawr College because of how many AP classes she had taken. “Very nice on the wallet,” she says. “[The amount of work] was brutal, and honestly, instruction was uneven, but overall good. She would tell you she would do it all again.”
Michael, a 2017 graduate from Whitney Young High School who currently goes to Cornell University, says he wishes he would have studied more for his AP tests so he could have placed out of more classes in college. “My biggest regret was not really trying because I thought they didn’t matter,” he says. “They help because they allow you to get out of classes that you usually don’t want to take. This frees up your schedule in college because you have already received credit for things like liberal studies, writing seminars and introductory science classes so you can take the classes that interest you.”
However, some colleges don’t allow you to count all APs for credit, so you may want to check with the schools your child is considering applying to before making a decision about which AP classes to take.
- AP classes can help your grade point average
This is a huge factor in why many students take APs, even more so than in using them to opt out of college classes. Almost all schools will bump up your grade point average at least half a point for taking an AP class. So while a B in a regular or honors level class would earn a 3.0, in an AP class that same B would be worth 3.5. That means the more AP classes you take, the higher your weighted grade point average.
Sue Levine-Kelly is a retired English teacher and former instructional supervisor for the English department at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview. She says if you think you could get an A in an honors level class, but you might only get a B in an AP class, taking the AP class is worth it. “In terms of getting a higher GPA, it’s better to take a more difficult class,” she says.
- AP classes can give you an advantage in college admissions
Penelope Rajczyk, an admissions officer at Columbia College Chicago, says having AP classes on your transcript shows colleges that you’re going to be able to handle college-level work.
“As an admissions officer who reads applications, I like to see AP classes on transcripts,” she says. “If I see success in AP courses, I have more data to work with in order to make a sound decision about admitting a student. Also, the increase to a student’s weighted GPA increases their scholarship offer.”
- AP classes prepare you for college-level work
Levine-Kelly says AP classes are also valuable because they give students an introduction to what college will be like. “They really can prepare you for the kind of thinking and kind of work you’re expected to do outside of class for college, especially in junior and senior year,” she says. “Teachers should be expecting you to take more responsibility for your learning and be able to break down assignments on your own and get in the habit of doing that work.”
On the flip side, Levine-Kelly says if your child isn’t able to manage his or her workload independently, can’t handle a lot of reading, or isn’t very good at reaching out for help, an AP class may not be appropriate.
- The cost of the exam
AP exams are not free. The fee for each test in 2019 is $94. In some states, fee reductions are available for students with significant financial need. However, if money is a concern, you might want to consider having your child only take exams in the subjects in which he or she is likely to do well.
- Taking them too early can backfire
In recent years, schools have opened some AP classes to freshmen and sophomores. While taking an Advanced Placement class freshman and sophomore year may look good on your transcript and boost your grade point average, these younger students are also more likely to struggle with the coursework.Rajczyk says the earlier students takes AP courses, generally the worse they do. “I rarely see As in AP classes from freshman or sophomore years,” she says.
- Taking too many can cause a lot of stress
Elizabeth Hartley, an English teacher at Evanston Township High School, understands the benefits of APs but says taking too many at a time can cause undue stress. Some students fail her AP classes because they get so busy that they can’t keep up with all of the homework. “Do you really want to get yourself so deep into your academic responsibilities that you don’t have time to check your [homework assignments]?” she says.Instead, Hartley recommends that students only take APs in the subjects they care about and stick to honors level for their other classes.Rajczyk agrees that it’s better to take AP classes in the subjects you plan on pursuing in college, rather than loading up with as many as you can.“Unless the student is headed to Harvard or a similar highly selective college, I think a full schedule of AP classes is unnecessary,” Rajczyk says. “If a student is interested in pursuing a liberal arts major, then AP literature and AP language classes are a good idea, and if they plan to purse STEM, then AP calculus or AP environmental science can help prepare them. But there’s no reason to take all AP classes. It’s a possible setup for failure if the student can’t handle the workload.”
Levine-Kelly, on the other hand, says instead of taking AP classes only in the subjects you enjoy, you should try taking at least one AP class in each discipline over your high school career — one in English, one in math, one in science and one in history — to show that you are well-rounded.
However, she also acknowledges that the decision about how many AP classes to take at a time really depends on your child’s personality and strengths. “Families have to really think about this individually and not think about what the rest of the crowd is doing. To overly stress a child just to say that he took an AP, I don’t think it’s worth it.”