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Juggling AP Courses

Taking AP courses is de rigueur for most college-bound students these days: the number of AP tests given by the College Board doubled in the last ten years, after doubling in the ten years before that as well. So read on if you’re one of those students staring down multiple APs and wondering how you’re going to get through them without coming unwound yourself. Moreover, if you’re at an independent school that has stopped offering AP courses, most of what I say below about course selection and study habits still applies to you too.

It’s Never Too Late

Your college counselor has probably been throwing terms like “academic rigor” and “strength of schedule” at you lately, so you know it’s important to take AP courses if your school offers them. And it’s important to do well in them (that’s way more important than getting the 5, actually). But it’s not important to take every single AP course your school offers. Ideally, you’ll have graduated taking several APs along the way, reflecting your interests and your intended major in college.

Want to be an engineer? Then AP Physics makes a whole lot of sense. But it really doesn’t if you’re all about history and are already in AP Lit, AP World, and AP French. So take a look at the classes you’re currently signed up for and set yourself up to succeed. It’s not too late to make changes to your schedule. And if you decide to switch out of an AP class, you’ll likely feel better about doing it now, because you’re taking control of your academic future and making good decisions, than after you get rocked by the first test. AP courses generally do require you to spend more time working on them, so try to make sure that the work you’re doing is something you actually want to do. (And, honestly, you should reread the second half of that last sentence. It’s about the best advice for your future I can give you.)

It’s About Time

You’ll soon learn that the most precious thing you have actually isn’t your new car, your new iPhone, or your autographed Ovechkin jersey. It’s your time. And being successful in multiple APs will likely require you to put more time into your schoolwork than you’ve ever spent before. So here are a few things to help you work not harder but more efficiently:

  • Stay on top of the material. You spend an hour a day in class already, right? It’d be great if you were actually learning something then, huh? Getting behind in a class is a double whammy, because you might not be following the teacher anymore, so you get trapped in a never-ending came of catch up. Don’t start that game. Do the reading.
  • Eat that frog. Um … what? That’s the title of a book about efficiency that came out a few years ago. The idea is this: if you’ve got several tasks ahead of you, do the hardest, most distasteful one first. Once you’ve done that, it’s no longer hanging over your head (and lingering in the back of your mind, distracting you). Doing it first, while you’re fresh, will also make the hard stuff easier. So if you dread your AP Bio reading, start there and get it done so that you can then “enjoy” your AP US History with a clear mind!
  • Lose the phone. I know, I know… you’ve heard this one before. But I’m begging you: charge your phone in your kitchen while you’re working. Use it as an incentive if you need to – after every 30 minutes, you’ll get up and walk downstairs (good to move around, by the way) to see what you’ve missed. Then back to work. Studies have shown that even small distractions kill your productivity and the quality of your work way more than the simple time they take. And if you’re reading this thinking you’ll be fine because you’re a good multitasker, I’ve got some bad news for you. Other studies have shown that people who think they’re good multitaskers are actually the worst at multitasking!

Shake Things Up

Don’t fall into a rut with your studying. Doing what you’ve always done, but just for a longer period of time, may not be the best way to deal with all the new information you’ll be expected to handle. So experiment with different ways of studying so that you can find what works for you.

  • Who do you study with? Do you work well in study groups? They have many potential benefits: explaining a concept is one of the best ways to know that you’ve learned it. And there’s nothing better than your classmates for moral support – you’re all in the same boat, after all. Just make sure to pick your partners carefully so that the study group is actually a study group and not a gossip session. Well, at least not too much.
  • What tools do you use best? Love your multicolor highlighter set? Do you always take notes on your laptop? Love quizlet? Do you have a whiteboard that you use to rewrite vocabulary or equations until they’re memorized? The best studying is interactive studying and tools help with that. When you’re highlighting or summarizing or outlining or quizzing, you aren’t just passively reading material. You’re making decisions about what’s important or not and creating for yourself a mental filing system about how to understand the material. That’s what we in the business call learning.
  • Where do you do your best work? Is it in your bedroom? Is it at the library? Getting outside and absorbing some vitamin D when you can? Changing where you’re reading can give you a bit more energy and help you focus.
  • When can you be most productive? If it’s already 11pm and you’re feeling tired, the best bet may not be to push onward for another hour and finish up. Maybe the better idea is to go to sleep and set your alarm an hour earlier. What you can do in an hour after you’ve slept might have taken you two the night before.

Exploring these different ways to study is actually one of the major benefits of taking multiple AP courses. Many students get to college without ever really knowing how to study. Those who figure out what works best for them while they’re still in high school will reap the benefits not just in better grades and scores in high school, but as better-prepared students heading off to college.

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