AP Success Can Mean Savings
The catch: Colleges are tightening
what they accept for course credit.

by Suzanne Koup-Larsen

If someone offered you the chance to earn college credits for $30 a credit, you’d jump at the chance. After all, even at state-supported universities, courses cost several hundred dollars per credit.

By taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school, “There is a lot of potential for saving some money,” says Susan Tree, director of college counseling at the Westtown School, a K-12 college prep Quaker school in Westtown, PA.

With the help of credits earned from several AP exams, students can potentially graduate from college in six or seven semesters instead of the usual eight. College policies vary widely, but with good AP exam scores, students can often earn college credit before ever setting
foot on campus.

Profile of a
Good AP Student

According to college counselors, a good AP student is:
• Responsible
• Prepared
• Willing to learn
• Someone who has good study skills and habits

Did You Know?

It is not necessary to be enrolled in an AP course to sit for the course’s exam in May. Self-study books are available to help students who’d like to study AP courses independently. But the AP curriculum is so demanding that success is often predicated on home schooling, tutoring or exceptional student motivation and ability.

International Flair: IB

A few schools offer International Baccalaureate programs rather than Advanced Placement. The IB is an international program, offered a full range of courses at 2,500 schools in 132 countries — but at relatively few in the U.S.

Rick Grier-Reynolds has seen a bumper sticker that reads: “The AP will get you college credit, but the IB will get you through college.” As the International Baccalaureate Diploma program coordinator at Wilmington Friends School, in Wilmington, DE, Grier-Reynolds believes the IB curriculum is a more student-centered than most AP courses.

While the IB program includes primary and middle school curricula, its Diploma program is most similar to AP. Like the AP, the coursework concludes with an exam. However, the IB puts a greater emphasis on essays rather than multiple-choice questions. AP courses and exams are content-specific, while the IB curriculum is interdisciplinary and more conceptual.

Splitting with AP

While AP was once considered the crème de la crème of high school coursework, some schools, such as the Westtown School in West Chester, PA, and the Haverford School have dropped AP classes from their curriculum.

“There’s not that much cache anymore,” says Susan Tree, Westtown’s Director of College Counseling. While AP coursework is rigorous, some criticize its emphasis on memorization and lack of depth. Many teachers at Westtown felt that teaching to the AP test tied their hands, and they thought that they could provide a better curriculum.

Dropping AP has not been a problem for Westtown students applying to college. “They don’t care if your school has AP or not,” Tree says of college admissions, “as long as the student is taking advanced courses and challenging himself.”

AP courses in 37 subjects are available to high school juniors and seniors — if their school offers them. Each course culminates in an exam in the first week of May for a fee of $86. The tests are scored on a scale of 1-5; scores of 3 or better are said to predict academic success in college.

There’s a catch, of course. “Colleges are increasingly stingy about what they accept,” says Matt Glendinning, upper school director at Moorestown Friends School. Some accept 3s or better for credit, but some elite universities only accept 5s. Sometimes colleges will waive course requirements based on AP exams but not grant credits. Students will simply be able to take higher-level courses in that subject area.

So taking an AP class and sitting for the exam will not guarantee college credits. Because AP exams are given in May, after college admissions decisions have been made, first-semester senior year performance in the course is often more meaningful to admissions officers than the exam score.

To learn about a particular college’s AP credit policy, visit its website, or look up the college at http://collegesearch.collegeboard.com/apcreditpolicy/index.jsp

‘Not for Every Student
When asked if they would rather see a “B” in AP course or an “A” in a less challenging course, college admissions officers answer “neither.” They want to see an “A” in the AP course. “We place a great emphasis on the rigor of the course-load,” says Michael Gaynor, Villanova University’s admissions director. At most U.S. high schools, that means taking AP courses.

Nevertheless, “college admissions like to see AP on the transcript, but it’s not for every student,” says Jim Riordan, director of guidance for the Cherry Hill Public Schools. Because grade point average (GPA) is an important factor in college admissions, an average or worse performance in an AP class might be unhelpful.

“It’s high risk high reward,” says Widener University’s director of admissions, Edwin Wright. A student who stretches himself by taking an AP course, studies hard and does well will impress college admissions officers and perhaps receive college credit. Poor performance can sometimes lower a student’s GPA and perhaps show that he’s not ready for college-level work.

But even if taking an AP class results in an exam score that doesn’t earn college credit, the experience can still be valuable. The AP curriculum helps prepare students for college, Riordan says. Taking the AP exam gives students an advance look at what college final exams can demand of them.

If your high school student wants to go to a prestigious school, doing well in an AP class will help her compete with other strong students. If her ambitions and study skills are not top-notch, a less challenging class might be a more comfortable fit.
In general, colleges want students to take the most challenging course-load they can handle.

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a local freelance writer.