Wednesday, March 1, 2017

AP Classes: Maximizing Benefits, Maintaining Balance

The popularity of AP classes at U.S. high schools is booming. Most schools offer at least a few advanced placement classes, and many give kids the opportunity to choose from more than 20. Along with the increased availability of AP classes, so too has the pressure grown for students to take advantage of these advanced courses, which are now viewed as one of the keys to acceptance at competitive colleges and universities. As a result, many students pack their schedules with AP classes, often at the cost of sleep, social life and extracurricular activities. But are APs necessary to get into college? How many should kids take, and how many are too many? 

Colleges expect students to be actively engaged in learning and to demonstrate a high level of mastery in the courses they take. A common guideline is that students should take the "most rigorous courses available to them." This doesn't, however, mean that kids should take every AP offered at their high school. The key is to balance APs with regular college preparatory coursework, a process which should take into account the rigor of the class as well as students' interests, strengths, and tolerance for stress.

Some APs are more challenging than others and carry heavier homework loads. Not surprisingly, APs in "academic" areas like science, math, English and history tend to be more difficult, while those in the arts, languages and social sciences are considered "softer". Of course, the relative challenge or ease students experience in a course depends in large part upon the areas where they excel and those where they aren't as proficient. 

In general, students should build an AP course schedule that includes the subjects of their greatest interests and strengths. If a student is equally strong in math/science and the humanities, diversifying to include courses in two or three subject areas can demonstrate that he or she has a solid foundation across the curriculum. It's also important to be sure that the course load is balanced; no schedule for a conscientious student should regularly consume more than three to four homework hours per day.

If a student has already chosen a college major of interest, taking AP classes related to that field can be beneficial to demonstrate both strong interest in and aptitude for a subject (this is especially true of the sciences, computer sciences and engineering). While AP credit may be counted toward lower division major requirements at some colleges, don't be surprised if competitive majors at selective universities won't accept AP credit to waive foundation classes. This doesn't mean the classes aren't worth taking, however, as they will provide strong preparation for successfully approaching the major's coursework.

If a high school doesn't offer an AP class in a student's area of interest or if he or she wants the flexibility to pursue advanced study outside the regular school day, there are alternative ways to take classes. Several accredited online and independent high schools offer AP classes throughout the year. While sometimes expensive, this can be a great option for kids who want to complete work over the summer or are unable to fit a course into their school day.

Another frequently overlooked option is community college courses. While community college courses aren't APs (which is a standardized high school course), they are in some ways even more valuable in that they demonstrate a student's ability to master a college level curriculum as well as be successful in a college environment. Students can take general education classes or focus on a particular area of interest related to a potential major. When applying to college, students send their community college transcript along with their high school transcript, and the courses are "weighted" in the calculation of the GPA just as an AP class would be. If the courses are transferable, the credits earned can typically be used to fulfill lower-division requirements or even prerequisites for a major. Community college is affordable and students enjoy the freedom and independence they have outside the high school classroom.

If a student wants to take an AP class but is worried about the challenge, consider adding the course to the school year schedule and then taking an AP "pre-course" over the summer through a platform like EdX. These MOOCs (massive open online classes) are offered by major universities and are often self-paced. Students can get a head start on understand the AP material and hopefully relieve some stress and homework time during the school year by laying a strong foundation before the first day of school. 

AP classes can be a valuable aspect of high school education, but it's important to maintain a healthy perspective when choosing classes. Earning a B in a tough AP class is usually better than getting an A in a regular college prep class, but Cs should be avoided. Kids shouldn't take on so many APs that the place their sleep, sanity or GPAs at risk. They should choose classes that that will deepen their learning and help them develop as confident students rather than focus on racking up AP credits. In education, there is no single "right way" to do things, so don't be afraid to take the "less is more" approach at times or to look for non-traditional ways to show colleges that you are a curious and self-motivated learner. By pursuing the courses that are right for you in high school, you can trust that you will get into and thrive at a college that is the best match for you.