Are AP classes really worth it for high school students?

More high schools are offering college-credit classes than ever before. We spoke with experts in the field to find out what this means for high school students in NoVA.

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Back in the 1950s, The College Board launched a new way for high school students to earn college credits: AP classes.

The high-level courses give students the opportunity to earn college credit by taking tests at the end of the year. Students who pass the tests submit their scores to colleges for credit consideration. But is the rigor that AP courses require worth the stress?

According to a study from The Pew Research Center, the pressure associated with getting into college has increased at a steady pace, with anxiety and depression becoming real side effects, leaving 17- and 18-year-olds to do whatever it takes to get into their dream school. 

Curriculum in high school is becoming more challenging, too. Over the last 10 years, the number of public high school graduates in the U.S. who have taken an AP exam increased by 65%, and those who have scored a 3 or higher (AP tests are ranked on a scale of 1 to 5; 3 and higher are passing scores) on at least one exam has increased by 63%, according to College Board Data from February 2019. 

Plus, the College Board data shows that last year in 2018, Virginia made it into the top 10 states with the highest percentage of public high school graduates scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam. While the data reflects positively on the academic achievement of NoVA’s students, how much is too much and what are the tangible benefits for your child?

“What I encourage students to do is be the best version of themselves,” says owner and senior college counselor Cathy Ganley of ForWord Consulting, a company of educational consultants located in Northern Virginia. “They need to ask, ‘Are there leadership or volunteer opportunities available in the organization I am part of?’ Academically, the two most important things are GPA and rigor.”

The academic ability coming out of high schools in Virginia, according to Ganley, makes the playing field for getting into colleges within the state—such as Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, George Mason University and James Madison University—very competitive. 

While AP is the most common for-credit program offered, some high schools offer different ways to receive credit, including IB or dual-enrollment programs. All show college admissions counselors that the student is advancing in one way or another, according to Michael Walsh, dean of admissions at James Madison University in Harrisonburg.

“The commonality—whether you come out of Fairfax County or Green County or Southwest Virginia—is we like to see students take an above-average curriculum, and that includes honors, an IB, AP or dual-enrollment,” Walsh says. “It indicates to us that a student isn’t afraid of a challenge.”

Another aspect of AP courses is that they each have a greater weight on an individual’s GPA than a standard high school-level class does.  If a student takes more AP courses than he can handle and does not perform well, it can hurt his GPA and overall profile when applying to universities, according to college counselor Miriam Schaffer of SpanOne, a California-based company with counselors across the country.

In Virginia, colleges only accept so many individuals from the various high schools in each county, according to Ganley, creating a need for students to differentiate themselves from the competition.

“When looking at schools in Virginia, that rigor is really important and you’re competing against kids from your own high school for those spots,” Ganley explains. “When a university is getting copies of transcripts they’re going to look at student A, who has taken four AP and a few honor courses, versus student B, who has taken one AP course and a few honors courses, and that can be the deciding factor.”

According to Walsh, though, it isn’t all in the course load.

“Kids are overdoing it,” he says. “I’ve sat on panels with individuals from highly selective universities and when a student says, ‘I’m going to take seven or eight AP courses,’ they always ask, ‘Why?’ It’s not healthy. We like to see them challenge themselves but we also like to see them have a life.”

Students who do choose to take collegiate-level courses tend to be better prepared for what lies ahead on a campus, including things like time management and appropriate studying habits, according to all three experts. 

When students are starting to take an interest in prestigious universities, Walsh recommends they reach out to the schools themselves to hear about what they expect because, often times, applicants rely on information from neighbors and older friends that isn’t always accurate.

“High school is really important in your overall development as a person,” Walsh says. “You have to have time to deal with the non-academic side, as well.”

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