There’s a lot of emphasis today on crafting with expert hands the best possible college application. Increasingly, high school students are under immense pressure to be “better” than their compatriots, at least in the eyes of a college admissions officer.
As early as middle school, students, and to a high degree parents, have begun formulating a program of studies that they believe gives themselves or their children the best shot at a competitive school. Today, many families hire college admissions experts to chart the student’s path to the top.
Advanced Placement (AP) on College Applications
One major component of this new competitiveness has been the presumed necessity of Advanced Placement (AP) classes on a complete application. While the AP system is nothing new, students’ enormous focus on it has increased dramatically. As reported on the TeenLife Blog, a recent College Board study found that the number of students taking the A.P. tests has increased by nearly 500 thousand since 2003.
But I sincerely believe that there should not be such a heavy focus on AP classes on college applications for everyone. I take a much more nuanced approach to applications, including my own. Here’s why.
Not for Everyone
I believe that while AP classes gives students a change to learn more, faster, they also represent—for many—an unnecessary stressor. Frankly, these are advanced classes; they are not supposed to be for everyone. High school students are already subjected to extreme stress from college applications and classes, so if they are not prepared for AP classes, they should not take on this extra burden.
[Both AP classes and an independent advisor can help you get into college. Search for one today.]
APs for the Real World
If you have a major interest in U.S. History, go ahead, take the AP U.S. History. If you love science and want to go into a scientific career, I encourage you to take AP Biology, Physics, Chemistry, etc. These classes should be meant for people who want this subject in their lives in a major way and who already have accelerated knowledge of the topic.
These classes should not, however, only be taken because they “look good on a college application.” Not only do these students open themselves up to unnecessary amounts of stress (as AP classes are incredibly intensive) but they also crowd out the system for people who, I believe, really ought to be there—by further diverting teacher attention and school resources.
I know I have no intention of being a historian or a scientist, and because there is no AP Journalism (and my school doesn’t offer AP English), I didn’t think it correct to tire myself out on something that wouldn’t actually help me in my life after college.
You see, I am a strong proponent of thinking for the real world. On a recent college visit, a professor told my tour group that it didn’t matter where we went to college, but what we did there and what we could show for it. To simplify, it’s not about the name or the competitiveness of a school, but how hard you can work and what you can work on when you get there. For a journalist, a portfolio; for a scientist, research experience.
Sure, APs teach you how to take exams and what to annotate during lectures, but I would argue that any high-level high school course should do that. Besides, what use are these skills once you graduate?
Do AP tests prepare any but the aforementioned few for the real world? I think not. There is no multiple choice in the real world, few hour-long lectures, and no need for most to know the 13th President or the atomic mass of Iridium. Unless this is the subject that you want to major in, or work in, the AP will do nothing to prepare you for life itself.
Extracurricular Activities > AP
This is the job of extracurricular activities, experiential learning programs, and out-of-school jobs. I will use myself as an example.
I always knew I wanted to be a journalist, so I signed up for my school newspaper during the first week of high school (although I wasn’t writing coherently until sophomore year!). I began writing for TeenLife, and wrote a little for the Boston Globe GreenBlog. Now, when I get to college, not only will I have a background in journalistic writing and know how to write an article, but I will have “clips”: The oh-so-valuable published work portfolio of the media world.
But it’s not just journalism. Let’s say you want to be a software developer. How would AP European History help you? Instead, join your school’s web team or club (if they have one), play around with HTML and WordPress in your free time, and maybe even ask a local small business if they would like your help designing a web page. You’re in high school, so it’s economical for them, plus it gives you invaluable experience and the equivalent of “clips” to add to your C.V.
What makes these real-life experiences all so wonderful is that they do not discriminate by location or funds. In this digital age, anyone can contact almost anyone and do things or learn to do things that they love. Even if you don’t have your own computer, you can use one at the library or at school. If you live in a district that can’t afford or doesn’t offer AP classes, there’s nothing stopping you from creating a great background for yourself in the real world.
High school is a closed world, and AP classes allow students to boost up an application without actually leaving the comfort of this closed world. I argue that it shows more skill and more readiness to get yourself out of the school building and into the real world by doing something that will actually matter in the long run.
There’s no doubt in my mind that taking APs has advantages in college, namely established credits, cost avoidance, and some valuable preparation for class. But college is not the end-all-be-all. The real world is where you will end up, and thanks to modernity, you can now enter the real world in full force, while still in high school. It requires just as much work (if not more), but it will pay many, many more dividends in the future.
College admissions officers know this, I think, and it’s certainly something everyone should try to do.