I made a huge mistake my senior year of high school. No, I didn’t get addicted to drugs; no, I didn’t have a run-in with the cops. Nothing like that.
I made the mistake of taking too many AP classes.
High school students tend to get caught up in the “AP track.” You start with one AP class, add a few more the next year, and by your senior year you carry a full schedule of APs. This post will discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of Advanced Placement courses and exams, and why it is important to moderate how many you take at a time.
In my experience, most AP teachers are extremely talented and a joy to learn from. And of course, a good score on the exam can get you college credit and higher placement in college courses. This means it’s possible for students to completely place out of all their general requirements even before taking a college class, so by their first or second semester they have free pick from the course catalogue. These credits can also help you graduate early and save a semester’s worth of tuition. Also, selective schools generally look for rigorous academic schedules, meaning they’re looking for AP classes since those are usually the toughest level classes offered in high schools. Students that are up to the challenge will benefit from a more demanding curriculum.
Almost everything under “the good” is conditional. Not all AP teachers can competently teach AP classes. Not all schools, specifically Ivy League and other highly selective colleges, will accept all or any AP credit. Note the irony: students that are applying to these schools are the majority of the students taking 3-4+ AP tests, but these schools only accept a few, if any, of the tests for credit or course placement. They do this because most of their students would be graduating early if they accepted every AP test. There are many reasons for this. Some schools are not satisfied with the exam’s capacity to judge your ability, so they require students to take departmental exams despite a 4 or 5 on the AP test. Also, they may just want you to take their own course because they want to ensure you are taught everything they think you need.
AP curricula are generally not conducive to learning beyond the AP exam. To memorization, maybe. The AP Biology test covers more than 56 chapters of information, ranging from ecology, animal and plant structure, genetics, populations, to energy transformations. The AP World History Exam stretches from 8000 BC to today. How can all this information be effectively and thoroughly taught in 10 months? I took AP Chemistry two years ago. I remember some broad concepts, yes, but I have forgotten a lot of the information; I can barely remember what stoichiometry is. With the amount of information students are forced into their skulls, there’s little time for students to truly engage, absorb or even enjoy learning the material.
AP courses often don’t prepare you for anything other than the AP test. It’s clear that Document Based Questions on the history exams are designed to teach students to analyze and interpret primary source documents. But that’s not what happens: you learn to formulaically paraphrase 10+ documents until it turns into an essay. How is that useful in the real world? Also, in what other setting will students or people need to write an essay in 40 minutes?
I think an article from the Huffington Post explains the overall problem of AP curricula well:
“…AP forces teachers to conduct superficial and mechanical survey courses… The frenetic pace required to cover all the material on an Advanced Placement year-end exam leaves no time for the flexibility and in-depth topic studies conducive to more effective learning.”1
And, the ugly…
Parents, guidance counselors, colleges, and even other students may pressure you to take more AP courses than you think you should. Remember: the number of APs you take is like junk food. They’re okay in moderation, but it’s unhealthy to take too many at once.
And that was my mistake my senior year. I took too many AP classes. The pressure of college applications was just starting to escalate, and I thought that taking the most rigorous schedule possible would strengthen my application. It’s what they all tell you to do, right? Even before classes began I knew the year would be tough with such a schedule. In the past I had taken as many AP classes as possible, and that had really challenged me; I didn’t think adding a few more could be that much worse.
I took five AP courses my senior year. I didn’t like the subject or the teacher of three of them (biology, calculus, and psychology) and had no plans to study any of those fields in college, but I knew it would make my transcript look a lot better, and maybe even boost my GPA. To make room for the AP classes, I sacrificed a theater class with many of my friends and with one of my favorite teachers. I wanted to take chorus, but a schedule conflict with one of my APs prohibited that. I had no electives in my schedule. Already not looking good.
How did things pan out? That fall, I slept an average of 4-5 hours a night, often dipping into 3 hours or fewer. I resorted to coffee before play rehearsals; otherwise, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t remember lines or concentrate on acting. I began hating rehearsals – the one part of the day that I would normally look forward to the most – because the exertion depleted any energy I had left. I’d go home and somehow complete five-or-so hours of homework. As the year went on, homework began taking me even longer because I was too tired concentrate. I couldn’t appreciate English or history, the two classes I enjoyed, because I began resenting the homework in those classes, too. I would get to bed by one or two in the morning, and wake up as early as 5:30 to get to school for morning meetings.
I was more depressed than I had ever been. And throughout all this, I had to make time for college applications and other extracurriculars (those morning meetings). Never mind a social life.
Based on the responses from my colleges, I don’t think it was all worth it. I’m happy with where I’m going to school, but I don’t believe my acceptance hinged on me taking more AP classes. My health and my deeper interests are way more important than college credit or a (debatably) stronger application.
Tips for students taking or considering AP
Don’t take AP classes in subjects you aren’t interested in. Do a gut-check. Are you actually interested in the course, or are you just doing it for colleges? AP courses are designed to cover massive amounts of information at a detailed level. Not only will you not like the topic of the class, you will spend large quantities of time on difficult work.
Prioritize your schedule. If you have to choose between a class you really want to take and an AP class, take the former. You’ll only regret it if you don’t. I took AP Biology instead of theater, and I started regretting it a few weeks into the school year.
Manage your time. Make sure you have the time to do the homework for your classes. If you play sports or have other, regular obligations after school (like college applications!), your course schedule should accommodate that. Alternatively, consider dropping an extracurricular if you need more time to do classwork.
If you can, see if your schools will actually take the credit. As I mentioned above, not all schools will take AP credit. If you have a general idea of where you’ll be applying, go online and see how they respond to AP credit.
Realize your health is more important. I would have dropped those three APs if I had known how much sleep I would lose. Sleep deprivation causes a whole slew of problems, including “depression, fatigue, emotional instability, poor decision-making, risky behavior,” and loss of motivation2. While suicide driven by academics isn’t that common, it still happens.
All this being said, there are exceptions…
I have a friend from high school that managed to take an extremely difficult schedule her senior year, be active in several extracurriculars, get accepted to one of the best schools in the nation, and be one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. There are a select few who have the passion and drive to do this. Most of us, however, need to be more cautious of our course scheduling.
Also, don’t shy away from an AP course if you belong in a more challenging class. Take the AP if the next level down is too easy, or otherwise you’ll just be bored. If there’s another option, such as Honors Physics instead of AP Biology, consider the former.
How many AP courses should you be taking? There’s no right answer. Consider your situation: how much time you have, your motivation for taking the course, and what you believe you’ll get out of the class. Talk about it with your parents and older students. Don’t feel pressured to take a certain number of APs because it’s what colleges want or what other students are doing. It just isn’t worth the sacrifice if they don’t mean anything to you.
*EDIT: I realized after posting this that I hadn’t been fair to “the good” of APs, so I thought I should add a bit more. My favorite classes in high school were APs, hands down. I have troubling generalizing why, so I’ll describe my AP European History class as an example. The AP Euro test is known for being extremely difficult because it covers so much history and detail, but instead of stifling effective teaching, the challenge helped to bring the class and our teacher together. We had to put in a couple of hours a day in homework for just this class, but our teacher’s passion for history diffused to us, and he found a way to make the class interactive and fun. By the end of the year we hit cult status; we constantly talked about the class, we held after school study sessions, and we even made t-shirts. Some of my best friends came from AP Euro. Although there was so much information, I learned a lot and have retained a lot, despite having taken the class a few years ago. If I had taken any other APs that year, however, I’m not sure I could have been able to appreciate the class and have time to sleep. Like I said, AP classes can be great experiences if you are passionate for the subjects and take them in moderation.
- Sir Ken Robinson on Education. A TED Talk on how today’s schools kill student creativity, a trait needed for the world’s future leaders.
- Race to Nowhere. A documentary calling to reform today’s education system that pushes students to build resumes rather than truly learn.
- Mallory, Alex. “The Real Reason Private Schools Drop AP Tests.” The Huffington Post. 16 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2011. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alex-mallory/private-schools-ap-tests_b_823616.html>.
- Brody, Jane E. “Sleep Deprivation – Health Effects – Aging – Jane E. Brody – New York Times.” The New York Times. 23 Oct. 2007. Web. 18 Oct. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/23/health/23brod.html?pagewanted=print>.
- Gillum, Jack, and Greg Toppo. “Failure Rate for AP Tests Climbing.” USATODAY.com. 3 Feb. 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2011. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2010-02-04-1Aapscores04_ST_N.htm>.
- Harding, Anne. “Sleep Deprivation Linked to Depression in Teens.” CNN.com. 9 June 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2011. <http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/06/09/sleep.deprivation.depression/index.html>.
- Image: christinek13.wordpress.com
What do you think? Have you ever had any issues taking AP courses? Do you think I’m being melodramatic? Leave a comment below!