AP Tests and Ivy League Admission

In highly selective college admissions — including in Ivy League admissions — excelling in AP courses is par for the course. We recommend to all of our students to take the most rigorous curriculum one’s high school allows and to excel in that curriculum. And of course after we make this statement, we’re often asked the question: Is it better to get a ’B’ in an AP course or an ’A’ in a non-AP course? Our answer is that it’s better to get an ’A’ in an AP course. While this may well elicit an eye roll, it’s the cold, hard truth.

Ivy League admissions counselors want to see that students challenge themselves. They want to see that applicants have a genuine love for learning and that students don’t have to work hard to excel in their courses because mastering the material should come naturally. That’s why we encourage our students to take AP exams even if their high school doesn’t offer the Advanced Placement courses in that discipline. For a cost of $89 per exam, anyone can take an AP exam.

But just because we recommend — and will continue to recommend for as long as AP programs are in place at high schools across America — that students take and excel in AP classes, that doesn’t mean we think that the AP program is without its issues. John Tierney, who worked as a professor for twenty-five years (mostly at BC) and later worked as a teacher at an independent high school, asserts in an Atlantic op-ed this very claim — that “AP classes are a scam.” He even jokes that Bernie Madoff would “raise his eyebrows” at the College Board’s scheme.

We wholeheartedly agree with this assertion (although we disagree with Mr. Tierney when he states that college admissions is a “crapshoot” and that students need to get involved with tons of volunteer activities to get into highly selective colleges, etc.). The fact is that AP classes don’t in the least resemble college courses. As an example, college courses often require students to write fifteen to twenty page papers. In a high school AP Government class, students are typically not required to write fifteen to twenty page papers, and that’s basically because the teacher is too busy prepping for the AP exam. After all, the scores that students receive on this exam are to a great degree a reflection of the teacher’s ability to teach.

Another reason why AP classes are a bit of a scam is because one of the founding purposes of the program was to save students (and/or their parents) money by offering college credit. But even if students receive ’5’s,’ they often do not receive college credit at highly selective universities. And should they receive anything but a ’5,’ the chances dip dramatically. So students are paying $89 for an exam that contrary to their intent will not effectively save them any money. This is because some colleges will only use the scores to allow students to place out of introductory courses. So now aside from not getting the credit, a student runs the risk of earning a less than stellar grade in an advanced college course, when in fact the AP course may be far less challenging than the introductory course. The absurdity of the situation!

But Mr. Tierney neglected to mention one of the biggest parts of the scam. High schools receive higher rankings when more students sit for AP exams. The key word here is the word “sit.” Regardless of these students’ scores, schools are rewarded for having students take the exams. Whether or not they actually do well on these exams is irrelevant to the rankings. To illustrate to you an example of how absurd this is, I’d like to share with you a personal story. I’ve worked with thousands of students over the years but this one particular story is my son’s.

My son was a strong high school student who exceled in his coursework and was ultimately admitted to an Ivy League school. His academic weakness in high school was always math and, come spring of his senior year, he knew that the AP Calculus exam was of no relevance to his life. He had already been admitted to the college of his dreams and that university did not have a stringent math requirement. Besides, he had zero shot of getting a ’5,’ and as the results of the test come back after high school graduation, it’s not as if he would face any consequences for a low AP score.

So what did he do? He doodled all over the exam and wrote a strongly worded letter to the College Board in the longer math answer section. In the letter, he explained how he was forced by his high school to take the exam even though doing so was purposeless for him. At the end of his letter, he kindly requested a refund and gave the address where the College Board could send a check. Needless to say, he (or his parents) never received such a refund, although he did get his score back that summer. It was a ’1,’ which led him to giggle.

As a private college counselor, I know of other students who have also doodled on their AP exams after they’ve earned their admission. And we feel they’re justified to do so. On behalf of every student who has wasted hours of their lives and their parents’ money, we kindly urge the College Board to see to it that they address these concerns and do so immediately. While doing so, please send me a check for my son’s AP Calculus exam. It’s over a decade late so I anticipate interest.


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