The Benefits and Limits of Advanced Placement (AP) Courses

Some students in preparation for the challenges of college take four AP courses junior year, and another four or five senior year. Invariably, this makes for late nights studying, even cramming, although for many, this sometimes translates into delving into the subject and gaining a solid sense of the material. Whatever the motivation for joining a AP classes, it’s worth knowing how they’re perceived and used beyond high school.  

Having a number of AP courses on a transcript, and getting either a ‘4’ or ‘5’ (5 being the highest score achievable) on the exams, besides showing a student capable of college level work, can save money and possibly even generate scholarships. Many universities award credit for AP courses. Though, according to Trevor Parker, senior vice president for AP at College Board, gaining college credit was never the original intent of the AP program. Rather, it was to develop college academic skills at the high school level. In any case, the College Board website contains details of how colleges award credits for AP exams:

If a student matriculates into Yale, for example, with a score of ‘5’ in AP Chemistry, Biology, English Language, and a ‘4’ in AP Calculus BC, French, and Computer Science, she will be able to begin her Yale career with 8 credits, just two shy of entering as a sophomore; this is the equivalent of saving on 4/5’s of an academic year, which represents a savings of around $40,000. She’d also be able to accelerate into more advanced biology, chemistry, and other subjects. The downside is, should she apply to medical school, say, Keck Medical School at USC, and she doesn’t have college level introductory biology and chemistry, she would have to take those courses before she can enter medical school. Consequently, the benefits of gaining AP credit and accelerating, in those subjects, would be nullified.

Furthermore, there are discrepancies, even among the top schools, in how credits are awarded. For example, to get credit for AP Biology at Northwestern or Yale requires a ‘5’; at UC Berkeley credit is given for a ‘3’.

Moreover, there is growing doubt among universities about the rigor, content, and especially, the depth of the AP courses. Dartmouth just announced, beginning with the class of 2018, it will no longer grant credit for AP test scores. An independent experiment conducted by Dartmouth’s psychology department took all the Dartmouth freshmen who had received a ‘5’ in psychology and administered them the final from Dartmouth’s intro psychology course. 90% of the students failed. Dartmouth then monitored the students who failed the exam and then elected to take intro psychology: Dartmouth found that these students neither did better than classmates who had never taken AP Psychology, or those who had received below a ‘5’ on the AP test.   Yale, by the way, offers no credit for AP Exams in psychology or history.

Beyond the credit issue, students who take AP exams are eligible for certain scholarships. Siemens awards top students who have taken math and science exams and scored a ‘5’ on at least two of them. There are also a number of AP Scholar awards,

Though the admissions offices like to see AP classes on applicant transcripts, high numbers of such classes don’t necessarily lead to admissions. One student, several years ago, took over 16 AP exams: she was rejected roundly at most of highly selective schools she applied to. Yes, admissions offices want students who are academically capable, but they also seek balance, and too many AP classes and exams are anything but.

AP courses are designed to be a means of rigorously delving into 34 different subjects (details of each can be found at the College Board’s new AP Website, ‘Explore AP,’ anything else they deliver is pure gravy.