Don't Get Caught in the AP Trap: How to Choose the Right Classes This Year

As students return to school, I’m always curious which classes they’re taking. Mostly because the options are way cooler than what I ever had. But I’m also curious about how students are starting to specialize. Are they learning what they’re good at? Are they getting a chance to delve more deeply into their interests?

One of my writing students told me that he was taking AP Art History this year. I was curious since I'd never heard him mention art or art history before. Turns out he has no personal interest in the subject, but he had heard from older students that this class was easy, and after all, it was an AP. Wasn’t that valuable in and of itself?

This is the “prep for college” voice talking. It chimes in to tell you that loading up on AP and Honors classes will make your transcript fancy and shiny. It's hard to ignore this voice and the pressure of wanting to stand out to colleges. But there are some serious problems with this approach to choosing your schedule. So what is a smart student to do instead?

Pursue Your Passions

The most obvious—and probably most overlooked—problem with the "pleasing colleges" approach is that you miss out on the chance to learn something you’re really interested in! My writing student, Liam, told me he had also signed up for Computer Science as an elective, and when he talked about it, his whole face lit up! He was really excited to be able to learn theory and some basics of programming. He will have a chance to investigate this interest and see whether it is one he wants to pursue.

Even if Computer Science doesn’t become part of his long-term college and career plan, Liam gets to be engaged about part of his school schedule. He gets to re-ignite his desire to learn. So much of life for high school students is reaction: adults tell you what to do and how to do it, and you respond, either by acquiescing, by rebelling, or by some subtle combination of the two. ;)

When you take a class that you are genuinely interested in, your human spirit grows a bit. You cease to be the equal-and-opposite reaction to events outside your control, and you become instead the Prime Mover.  This is a healthy respite that every teen needs from the soul-crushing feeling of being a powerless cog in the machine of industrialized education.

Do the Math on AP Classes

But back to reality, and the need to get into college because our economy is so weird that people with Bachelor’s Degrees are fighting to get jobs at fast-food restaurants and retail stores.  Was I giving Liam a bum steer when I asked him to stop and reconsider the AP class? Won’t any AP class help his chances of getting in to college, and thus his future money-making potential?

Nope. An AP class is a lot of work. Copious notes, hours spent memorizing all the material, tons of essays to write; it’s not a casual affair. There is no point in taking an AP class unless you plan to work at it, especially if you were hoping it would help you opt-out of Gen Ed classes in college. Only a score of 3 or higher on the AP test will help you do that. And that means lots of study-hours, plus the time for the test itself, which often displaces other classes.  Sacrificing time in another class to take an AP test you’re not well prepared for just doesn’t add up.

What about taking an AP to boost your GPA?  The extra help to your GPA from the AP comes in two possible forms, depending on your school. Some schools bump up your grade for the entire AP class retroactively if you score a 3, 4, or 5 on the AP test itself. Other schools weight the grade for the AP class, with an A being a 5.0 rather than a 4.0, and on down the line. So, clearly, you’re only going to get a helpful GPA boost if you either ace the test or do well in the AP class, and either way you'll be putting in a lot of work. There are no easy extra points here.

And what if your plan backfires? Taking either an AP or an honors class (the latter of which often comes with a half-point weight) means committing to tougher curriculum, more tests, more essays, and generally much more time spent studying outside of class. If you aren’t really good at the subject and / or really interested in it, your grade will reflect this. Let’s go through a sample scenario.

Imagine I take AP Biology because it’s available and because I want to improve my GPA.  Since this class has a weighted score, I’m psyched. But it’s hard. I spend all my time studying, sacrificing my grades in other classes because I just don’t have the time to turn in every set of Algebra II problem sets or to keep up with reading The Scarlet Letter. But it’s cool because in my mind the weighted grade is more important. At the end of the semester, I manage to pull off a B- in AP Bio—a huge feat, considering how much I struggled! But because of my inattention to other subjects, I got a B in Algebra II and an A- in English. Here’s what my GPA looks like:

  • AP Bio: 3.667 (B-, weighted scale)
  • Math: 3.0 (B, regular scale)
  • English: 3.667 (A-, regular scale)
  • Total : 3.44 (Let’s assume the rest of my classes were not affected.)

What if I had skipped AP Bio and taken regular biology instead? I would have still struggled some because it turns out that there is still a lot to memorize, and I’m not so great at Latin names. But I wouldn’t have had as much homework, so I would have had time to get help from my teacher during Tutorial Period and had more time to spend memorizing my vocab flashcards at home. Let’s say I pulled off a B in regular Bio. I was less stressed and was able to complete my math and English homework, and to dedicate more attention to my essays for English, a place where I have strength. Here’s what my GPA could have looked like:

  • Bio: 3.0 (B, regular scale)
  • Math: 3.33 (B+, regular scale)
  • English: 4.0 (A, regular scale)
  • Total: 3.44

As you can see, a class that “weights” your GPA is not a guarantee of a higher GPA. But if things come out even, as they magically did in the example above, where’s the harm in taking one of these advanced classes? And don’t colleges want to see them on your transcript?

Know That There Is No "Formula"

If you read about why it’s worth your time and effort to craft a winning personal statement for your college application, you learned that many schools take a holistic approach to admissions. They look beyond student performance to student opportunity. Since not all high schools offer AP or honors classes, many colleges see a transcript without those classes as no big deal. They don’t want to give an unfair disadvantage to students whose schools just didn’t offer advanced classes.

Even if colleges are impressed by your drive to take more difficult classes and challenge yourself, they run into a conundrum when it comes to how to view your weighted GPA. Different schools weight differently or not at all, and there is no universal practice among college admissions offices for factoring in this weight. It’s a messy system. And that’s good—you don’t want admissions to be a purely numbers game! You want a person, not a calculator, determining your acceptance. But all this subjectivity should make you think twice before signing up for AP Origami or Honors Basket Weaving. There is no foolproof equation for what those advanced classes will do for you GPA or your chances of college acceptance.

When to Consider an AP or Honors Class

  • When you have skill and interest in the subject matter
  • When you can prioritize the class and give yourself a strong chance of scoring a 3, 4, or 5 on the AP test
  • When you have taken several years of a subject and want to learn at a deeper level (Have you taken Spanish or French since middle school? Do you know the language well? You should consider the honors or AP class for junior or senior year!)
  • When you can do it without sacrificing your performance in your strong subjects

When to Skip an AP or Honors Class

  • When you have no interest, skill, or background in the subject matter
  • If you're looking for an “Easy A”
  • When there are other requirements you need to fulfill
  • When it would force you to skip or skimp on one of your strong subjects
  • When there are other classes you would rather take based on strong interest or talent

 

Balance Opportunity and Obligation

Let me take you back to Liam. He’s headed into sophomore year. That means his options for electives aren’t as varied or interesting as they will be next year and the year after that, since he is lower on the totem pole and won't get first priority in placement. He has also had less time to explore his academic strengths and interests.

In addition, he needs to keep an eye on his obligations. Liam has not yet met his high school PE requirement. A much better bet than AP Art History this year would be to fulfill his PE requirement during one of his three elective periods. It won’t be the most exciting class he ever took, but he’ll get it out of the way. In junior and senior year, when he has more variety of electives to choose among, he’ll look back and thank his sophomore self.

And he doesn’t have to completely sacrifice this year with required classes. Liam is definitely making the right choice in taking Computer Science. He has an interest in this field, and if he decides he likes it, he can continue pursuing computer-related courses in the next two years so that he can develop and mature his interest. If it turns out to be a bad match for him, he can focus in a different direction next year. Remember that an important part of uncovering what you like and what you’re good at is trying new activities and finding out what you don’t like or aren’t good at.

Make a Plan for Where You Are

Freshmen:

Explore! Try something you’ve never done before to see if you like it. Try that photography elective or audition for the play. Fill out an application for the Debate Club or the Mathletes team. You have plenty of time to find your strengths. And the secret no one is telling you is that colleges aren’t very interested in which classes you take freshmen year, unless they are the same classes you continue to for the rest of high school, the ones that demonstrate your enduring commitment to a field of interest. Go be free and have fun finding your talents! Take risks! Enjoy!

Sophomores:

Some exploration is still a good thing. If you didn’t have a chance to branch out last year, or if you didn’t like the new classes you tried, look for something that will make your eyes light up or make use of your strongest skills. If you are hooked on drama or programming or band, stick with it! Don’t think you have to try everything in order to find what you love. (It’s not a multiple choice test where you have to read through all the answers. Trust your gut!) And don’t forget, it’s a bummer to be a junior or senior and not be able to take all the cool classes available because you still have to fulfill requirements like PE or typing. So consider using at least one semester this year to check off any boring requirements. (If I sound like I’m being disparaging about PE, it’s not because I don’t enjoy exercising or playing sports. But I definitely did not enjoy having to do either in the middle of the school day, and then return to classes all sweaty and rushed. Just sayin’…)

Juniors:

Stick with an interest you’ve developed over the last two years and really plunge yourself more deeply into an area where you have skill, talent, or curiosity. Try the interesting electives you couldn’t get into last year. Choose them with a view to learning more about yourself and the world.  Is there an option for independent study? Is there a way to become active in your school or the larger world? Can you take some of your hypothetical interests and make them more concrete through projects, community outreach and volunteering, or competition? Is there a course you can take that would provide you with the experience you need to get into a summer enrichment program or land a summer internship?

Remember also that junior year will make other demands on your time: you will more than likely be studying for and taking the SAT or ACT, and maybe even some SAT II subject tests. It will pay to leave some room in your schedule

Seniors:

Things are getting real now. You’re going to be spending a lot of time this first semester planning for college. If your school offers electives that help with this in any way, you should seriously consider them!* If you have a passion that can be explored through electives, definitely pursue it. If you have been enjoying and excelling at a language, art, craft, or social or academic area throughout your high school career, why stop now? Remember, even though you don’t want to live your life under the yoke of “What do colleges want?”, it is just good common sense to create a paper trail of your commitment to a field of study, interest, or talent. Don’t you want to challenge yourself and grow even more in your chosen area of expertise? And don’t you want to be able to point to that growth and say, “Look how much passion and dedication I have!”

*If your school doesn't offer help with college planning, you need to look for it! Check out Write to College, an online class that helps you plan and write your personal statement while also keeping you on track with application deadlines. Class starts on September 20th, and you'll be done by the end of October!

Of course, don’t leave yourself high and dry. If there is a required course hanging over your head, sign up for it now, in first semester, so that you guarantee you get into it. What a bummer it would be if you couldn’t walk the stage at graduation with your class and had to take the course in summer school! (I’ve known students who had to do this. They did not like it one bit!)

Final Thoughts

No matter what year you’re in, ask for help. Discuss your goals with your guidance or college counselor, your teachers, and your parents. Choose courses that help you balance your present commitments and future desires. Save yourself from over-commitment and burnout by planning in advance so you can meet your required credits over time. Look out for unique opportunities that help you find your talents and grow your skills. And above all, don’t sacrifice what you want to pursue for what you think colleges want. Because it turns out that what colleges want most of all are students who are dedicated to their dreams and motivated by inner passion and drive.