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AP Classes: How Many are Enough?

Is more better?  And how would you even know?  Well, some terrific folks in college admissions actually have tried to quantify “enough.”

What Are You Taking Junior Year? 

I often see kids in sophomore year to plan for junior year classes, test prep, extracurriculars…  and to figure out how to strike a balance among all of the above. Most kids and their parents have a good sense of what’s enough, that sweet spot of feeling challenged without being overwhelmed. Others, however, seem to miss the mark. In the spirit of more is better, some students believe LOTS more must be MUCH better.

Often, a first conversation with a student will go something like this:

“Hey – what’s your junior year looking like? What classes are you taking?” I ask. 

“AP Calculus BC, AP Chemistry AND AP Bio, AP Comp, APUSH, AP French. Oh, and orchestra.”  

“Just a light load, huh?” I joke…pretty much every time. 

“Yeah, I haven’t slept in a month…I cannot wait until junior year is over.”

I’m not sure this is best, either for the narrow goal of college admission or the broader goals of living a fulfilling life with a helpful brain. It’s important for students to challenge themselves in ways that are appropriate for them. Otherwise, school could be an endless slog of worksheets and underwhelming classes that simply bore kids and certainly don’t help them develop as learners and as people. At the other extreme, though, too many students are trading in their health, relationships, and sanity in order to take the maximum possible number of APs, IB exams, or other college-level courses, on the assumption that it will make them more attractive college candidates and better students in the long run.

Does Taking More APs Make a Difference in College? 

A few years back, Jen Kretchmar and Steve Farmer wanted to see whether students at the University of North Carolina, where they are admissions officers, performed better with more APs under their belts. What they found made sense, with a surprise. From zero to five APs, IBs, and similar courses, more rigorous classes correlated with increased GPAs in college grades, from a 3.07 average GPA for those taking no college-level classes to a 3.26 GPA for those taking 5. The surprise was that taking more than five such classes, the marginal increase in the GPA per additional AP class was insignificant or even negative.

Why Might This Be?

There are a few reasons why students may benefit from APs up to a point and no more. One, of course, is the importance of sleep (my colleagues are merciless at pointing out how frequently I talk about this when I have slightly off days!) Students who have sleep debt simply don’t have brains that are working optimally. Kids grinding through every imaginable AP may simply have been so tired for so long that they wired their brains to be chronically stressed, which caught up with them in college, where they were unable to do their best work. In addition, students who took a ton of APs in high school just to get into college may then lose implicit interest in any content once at college. Students weren’t pursuing challenge in what most interested them but were more “doing school.” Long-term motivation is sculpted by “wanting to” rather than “having to.” Students taking a dozen or more APs may have driven more by “fear of not getting in” than by their intellectual passions.

At What Cost? 

Taking lots of APs is great, but in figuring out how to spend my own time, I try to think about the opportunity costs involved. What can I do with 4-5 more hours in my week? Certainly sleep, sure, but also connect with my family and friends, practice the oboe, do community theater, sing in a barbershop quartet, have time with my own thoughts – things that deepen my engagement with life for their own sake AND that make my brain more resilient to adversity. These kinds of experiences are likely to grow brains that not only get students into college, but that serve them well in their future research, relationships, and careers.

If you are excited about the content and able to manage the workload sanely, take a bunch of APs! But don’t burn yourself out overdoing it. If you take more APs than is reasonable, you won’t learn the content (or you’ll learn to resent it!), you may not get the grades you want, you may not increase your chance of getting into your dream school, and you likely won’t perform better once you’re there.

Better scores.
Better choices.

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