Advanced Placement (AP) classes are designed to offer college-level coursework and exams to high school students so that they can better prepare for college—and possibly even earn some college credits if they perform well enough on the final exam.
The importance of these AP classes has been built up so much in the minds of parents and students that, often, whether or not a school offers AP courses is one of the factors that they consider before deciding to enroll in a particular school. They believe that an AP designation speaks to the quality of the education that their child is going to receive, and a lack of AP courses (or a very small selection of AP courses) may even be seen as a blemish to an otherwise amazing school.
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Contrary to popular belief, AP courses in and of themselves do not speak to whether or not a school is top-tier. In fact, many great high schools don’t offer any AP courses at all.
Here are 5 of the most common reasons that many top high schools choose not to teach AP classes.
1. You don’t need to take an AP class to take an AP exam.
Many students who want to take AP classes do so because they want to earn college credits while they are still in high school. This not only looks good on a resume or college application: It can also save students and their families quite a bit of money because the fact remains that college is expensive.
But something that many students don’t realize is that AP coursework is not a prerequisite for taking an AP exam. Any student who would like to take an AP exam for a subject can do so, even if they haven’t taken the official AP class. The class itself is not required.
Also worth noting is the fact that many colleges and universities don’t offer credits to students who have completed AP classes—even those who ace the exam. Many universities only use them for placement (determining which classes incoming students should be placed into), and many of the most selective of schools don’t even use them for that.
2. Most AP classes simply teach to the test.
When students sign up for AP classes, they are opting into coursework that carries a singular goal: Helping students pass the AP exam at the end of the year.
This more often than not mean that AP classes end up teaching to the exam. Classroom engagement and true learning is sacrificed for the sake of rigidity and memorization. And that rigidity and memorization has become a real source of stress for many students who feel intense pressure to pass the exam.
The pace of AP classes contributes to this problem, by forcing huge amounts of material on students without giving them the time or opportunity to ask questions and understand the content at a deeper level.
In the end, a student may pass the exam and walk away with college credit, but if they haven’t truly learned the material that doesn’t really benefit them or prepare them for college.
A great school creates opportunities for students to write, to think critically, and to explore their own intellectual curiosities. Each of these skills—writing, thinking, and questioning—requires that a student engages in a learning process. What is learned through this method is much more likely to "stick" than the simple memorization that accompanies much of the AP coursework.
3. Non-AP courses can go deeper into a topic.
When it comes to making sure that students get the most out of their higher-level coursework, we’ve found that a logical sequence is essential to student success. Careful planning into the structure and sequence of advanced courses allows schools to teach material at a deeper level, which is more likely to resonate and stick with students, especially compared to simply teaching to the test.
AP classes, on the other hand, don’t necessarily follow a logical sequence, and they often offer only superficial knowledge on a subject: The bare minimum to pass the exam.Students are discouraged from diving deeper into material for fear that they will get off track, stifling curiosity.
Here at Friends’ Central, for example, we decide exactly what courses we want to offer at the advanced level and design them ourselves. Friends’ Central offers advanced course sequences in math, science, and world languages, as well as four advanced history courses, three of which have no AP parallels (History of Architecture, Creating Africa, and Modern Africa). We also offer Linear Algebra Advanced, which does not have an AP counterpart.
4. Cookie-cutter curricula = Cookie-cutter student recommendations.
Aside from a desire to earn college credit, many students seek AP classes because they want to to stand out from the competition when they apply for colleges. In their minds, having completed AP coursework accomplishes this, and also offers valuable fodder to their academic advisors, teachers, or college counselors who will be writing their student recommendation letters.
But the truth is, taking an AP class no longer differentiates students. It is relatively commonplace today for students to opt into these classes. And, frankly, the cookie-cutter nature of most AP classes offer students little opportunity to stand out from the crowd through original research and work.
An effective college counselor will draw from a student's work and describe specific projects that a student has completed when drafting school recommendations. Capstone projects, challenging seminar style classes, and original research are more impressive to colleges than receiving a 4 or a 5 on an AP exam. These are outstanding examples of skills in action that differentiate students in important ways that help them stand out among a large pool of applicants.
5. AP Classes don’t necessarily carry much weight with colleges.
We were wondering whether or not AP classes truly carried as much weight with college applications boards as some people commonly believe, so we polled 20 high-level colleges to which Friends’ Central regularly sends our graduates. The admission professionals all said that it does not matter to them whether or not students have taken AP classes.
Yes, colleges want to know that students have taken a school's advanced classes, but whether they were AP classes in particular is unimportant. Each student's transcript clearly indicates which advanced classes a student has taken. When used in conjunction with a school profile, which indicates how everyone who took a particular class performed, it is easy for colleges to determine whether or not a student has excelled in his or her studies.
Excellence is obvious to members of college admissions teams; true learning is obvious to students.
The Bottom Line
Students who are looking for a leg up on the competition when applying for colleges often believe that taking AP classes will do the trick, but the simple truth is that the classes in and of themselves do not designate a successful high school experience.
Colleges and universities don’t care whether or not a student has specifically taken an AP class. What they care about is that a student has challenged themselves in their studies and truly learned the material beyond simply memorizing facts to pass a test.