Advanced Placement courses are designed to give students an intro-level college curriculum while still in high school. They allow students to explore more advanced subjects, get a taste of college-level work and even amass college credits if they pass the AP exams.
Success in AP courses, which are developed by the nonprofit College Board, can boost a student’s transcript and save families thousands of dollars on college tuition. But experts caution that there are other factors to consider when enrolling in AP, including your teen’s workload and stress level.
“The AP courses require a lot more work, and they cover a lot more material,” says Richard Tench, chair of the American School Counselor Association’s board of directors.
While some students feel pressured to take AP classes, others lack access to them. Some schools do not offer any AP classes. In schools that do, Black and Latino students tend to be underrepresented. For instance, a 2020 report by The Education Trust, a nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps, found that while 15% of high schoolers are Black, Black students make up only 9% of those enrolled in at least one AP class. The report cites a variety of reasons for these disparities, including lack of communication with families and educator bias in identifying students for advanced coursework.
Deciding whether or not to take AP courses, and how many, can be confusing, says Melanie Frenkel, a mom in San Diego, California, whose daughter is in ninth grade. Frenkel says she and her daughter have heard that students should take as many AP classes as possible.
But Toby Walker, vice president of BASIS Independent Schools, a national network of private pre-K-12 schools where high school students are required to take AP courses, explains this should not be the goal.
“The goal should be to study subjects that a student is interested in and also maintain a reasonable school-non-school life balance, so they have time outside school to relax and pursue other interests,” he says.
Here are some of the benefits and drawbacks to keep in mind as your student is selecting AP courses.
What Are the Benefits of AP Classes?
An Edge in College Admissions
Taking AP courses and doing well on the exams can positively impact admission decisions, especially for more competitive schools, says Alix Coupet, a former admissions officer at Stanford University and lead counselor at Empowerly, a college counseling service.
“If a student’s school offers an AP program and the student has more selective colleges on their college list, it can be a good idea to take on the challenge,” Coupet says.
By taking advanced courses in certain subjects, students paint a picture of their interests for college admissions officers. And they get a chance to show what they know. “AP courses allow students to demonstrate mastery in a particular subject,” Walker explains.
Tench says schools value applicants who took on challenging high school coursework, which can help with both admissions and consideration for merit scholarships.
“Colleges these days are absolutely looking for rigor,” he says. “They would probably rather see a rigorous B than an A in a regular class.”
The Chance to Earn College Credit and Save Money on Tuition
Though there are exceptions, most U.S. schools will reward students who perform well on AP exams with college credit. That means students can ultimately save money on tuition.
“Students could enter college with a large number of credits, which in turn could reduce the amount of semesters they need to pay for college,” Tench explains.
Students usually need to score at least a 3 on the five-point exam to receive college credit, but some highly selective schools may require a 4 or above. And others, such as Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, do not offer AP credit at all. So be sure to check your prospective colleges’ policies — typically available on their websites — when making AP decisions.
Preparation for College-Level Work
Experts say AP courses can provide students with tools and knowledge that can help them excel in college.
“So many high-achieving students are shooting for those As, but those skills that they learn throughout are just as important,” says Tench, who notes that APs are a good way for students to learn how to take notes, study and develop critical analysis skills.
And taking AP courses in high school can help students develop their passions and figure out what kinds of courses they might be interested in taking in college. For example, after AP Biology, a student may go on to take a college course in neuroscience, says Walker.
What Are the Potential Downsides of AP Classes?
Frankel says the pressure on students to take as many AP courses as possible can be “ridiculous.”
But students are often better off taking only what they can handle, while still turning in a strong performance, experts say.
“Generally speaking, students who do well in non-AP courses during the earlier parts of high school are in a good position to take AP courses later on in their areas of strength and interest,” says Coupet.
But even students who excel in traditional high school courses may struggle in AP courses, which can be much more challenging, Tench says. He encourages students to consult with their teachers to help determine whether they are ready to take on AP coursework.
“Students need to have open conversations with their teachers,” he says. “It’s about being open and honest about their skills.”
Students should also consider the impact that AP coursework could have on their non-academic commitments, such as jobs, family obligations and extracurricular activities.
While college admissions officers value academic rigor, they also look for applicants who are committed to non-academic endeavors, experts say. Students should realize that overloading on coursework could prevent them from excelling in extracurriculars.
“Make sure you’re well-balanced,” advises Tench.
Students often feel intense pressure to perform well in school, and the pandemic has not helped matters. In a study by nonprofit Challenge Success, which is affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, and NBC News in fall 2020, a majority of students reported that their school-related stress and worries about college had increased during the pandemic. Students cited “grades, tests, quizzes, finals, or other assessments,” and “overall workload and homework” as their top sources of stress.
While some amount of stress is normal, an overwhelming workload can leave students burned out. For some students, the stress of high-stakes AP examinations can lead to “drastic shifts in behavior, sleep patterns, diet and academic performance,” says Coupet.
Jim Jump, academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia, encourages students to prioritize their well-being, even if that means stepping away from AP courses.
“AP courses should be challenging, but health and wellness are always the first priority,” Jump says. “You need to make sure the academic work is not compromising that.”
Jump advises parents of AP students to monitor their children’s sleep patterns and moods throughout the school year.
“If a student has to stay up until 1 a.m. every night just to keep up with the workload, that’s probably a red flag,” he says. “If you can tell that the student is constantly stressed out — and sometimes kids reflect this to their parents and sometimes they don’t — that would be a red flag.”
Supporting Your Student Throughout the AP Process
Experts say parents can help guide their teens in the AP course selection, but shouldn’t take over the process.
“Parents should be a part of the conversation with the student,” says Walker. “Help create a plan of action for a student’s course load and be ready to tackle any problems that might arise.”
While students should be the primary decision-makers, parents can be part of a group effort to guide their teens in the class selection process.
“The best decisions are made as a team: counselor, student and family,” says Coupet.
According to The Education Trust, schools with large populations of students of color are less likely to provide AP courses, due to funding gaps. Students seeking rigorous courses without access to AP should look into alternatives, such as dual-enrollment programs, which can also count for college credit.
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