In the push to achieve, achieve, achieve, the importance of “rigor” is drilled into high school students (and their parents). According to many high school counselors, AP classes and AP tests are the golden ticket to that coveted weighted GPA, to college admission, and to graduating early from college. Like most things in life, the truth is quite a bit more nuanced. Here’s what you really need to know about AP classes and AP tests.
1. Rigor matters. Yes, colleges pay attention to the classes a student takes in high school. They want to know that the student challenged himself or herself. Taking AP classes communicates that the student isn’t afraid to tackle demanding coursework, but….
2. Grades matter. Yes, AP classes give a student the grade bump that turns a 2.0 into a 3.0 and a 3.0 into a 4.0. That’s how weighted GPAs are calculated. But – and this is really important – not every college uses a student’s weighted GPA. Some colleges use unweighted GPAs. Other colleges unweight GPAs and reweight them according to their own formulas. The bottom line is this: the student should take AP classes that they can do well in. It’s arguably better to get an A in a “regular” chemistry class than a C in an AP chemistry class.
3. More isn’t necessarily better. Some students feel like they must take every single AP class their school offers. However, some colleges only count four classes’ (eight semesters’) worth of weighted GPAs (we’re looking at you, University of California). If a student takes a dozen honors and AP courses, that C in AP chemistry may end up counting as a 2.0.
4. AP tests may not matter. While many colleges look favorably upon students who take AP tests (again, it demonstrates that the student doesn’t shy away from a challenge), that doesn’t guarantee college credit for AP tests. For every story of a student who graduated from college in three years thanks to a slew of AP tests, there’s a story about a school (looking at you, Dartmouth) that no longer give college credit for AP tests.
5. AP tests can help in unexpected ways. At some colleges, strong AP test scores can lead to general education units. For students at universities with impacted courses or majors, those units can leapfrog students to the head of the line in course selection. For example, a first-year student can achieve sophomore status during their second or third quarter, giving them an earlier class registration time slot that their peers. Having access to impacted classes can mean graduating on time, which can save an enormous amount of money.
6. Colleges are inconsistent. A 2017 article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted that colleges have a variety of policies when it comes to AP tests: “According to the College Board, which oversees the AP program, nearly 4,000 U.S. colleges that accept AP scores have about 51,000 separate policies on awarding credit for the exams.”
Prior to enrolling students in every AP course offered or shelling out the $94 per exam for AP tests, families should understand all of the implications of the Advanced Placement merry-go-round. Knowing what colleges require, how they view AP classes and AP tests, and what kind of credit – if any – a student will be awarded is crucial information to have in order to make an informed decision.
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