Taking Credit

AP Classes often offer a head start on college

When many of today’s parents went to school, high schools offered just a handful of advanced placement (AP) classes, perhaps in biology, calculus, chemistry and English—mostly senior year. Today’s high school students can take AP classes starting freshman year in all of the above subjects and others including art, psychology, foreign languages, statistics, environmental science and history.

When students take AP classes, many parents see visions of their children acing the AP exams with 5s, racking up lots of college credit, graduating from college early and saving the family thousands of dollars. But that’s not always the case. Here’s a primer on AP classes.

Your Mileage May Vary

The AP tests are scored 1–5, with 5 being the highest score. Some colleges will take a 3 for course credit while others require a 4 or 5, notes Peter Mertz, headmaster of Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News. “It varies from school to school,” Mertz says. Sometimes a 3 or 4 on an AP exam will give a student credit for one three-hour course while a 5 will get him credit for two three-hour courses.

Some colleges work to make it easier. For example, Wesleyan University in Connecticut now offers a three year bachelor’s degree geared toward students who enter the school with AP credits. Ohio’s public colleges and universities also are assembling plans that allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years, with help from AP credits.

My son entered N.C. State University in the fall of 2011 with credits in U.S. history, European history, political science, world history, English, chemistry, physics, calculus, environmental science and psychology—40–45 hours and enough to enter as a second semester sophomore. If he had attended Virginia Tech, he also would have started as a spring semester sophomore. In one college math class, his AP credit was contingent on making a good grade in the next class.

Other colleges limit the number of AP credits—no matter how many the student has. For example, my son was told Duke University would credit him for just six hours worth of classes—no matter how many 5s he had on AP tests.

“Colleges are not keen on having their students graduate too quickly,” Mertz says. “It’s not necessarily a cynical money issue. They believe they offer an enriching experience and why shortcut that based on AP credits?”

Graduating early also may depend on the student’s major and how heavy of a class load the student takes in college. My son plans to graduate in four years, but he’s in an engineering program that takes most students five years—so I guess he’s still earned a year. He also is able to take fewer credit hours.

One of the big benefits in my son’s world: he was able to get football and basketball tickets based on being an upperclassman his first year.


How Many AP Courses To Take

Some high school juniors and seniors take as many as five, six or seven AP courses in one year. At Hampton Roads Academy, students are encouraged to take no more than three AP classes per year, Mertz says.

“Our AP courses are very demanding,” he says. “An AP course is by its definition, a college-level course. Compare a student taking three AP classes, plus two or three courses in addition, plus athletics, drama, singing, playing music—that’s a pretty heavy load. Plus, we have a community service requirement for graduation. How realistic is it for a student to take a full college-level load, plus all the other things we expect our students to do?”

Be mindful of pushing your child too hard to fill his or her schedule with more AP classes than he or she can handle. “Parents have bought into the AP,” says Susan Oweis, head of school at Providence Classical. “I know of students who have had to take days off because of the stress level over academics,” she says. “I know of parents who are upset because their child got a 4.1 GPA instead of a 4.2. We have children who are feeling like failures at college.”

Not Just College Credit

Some students appreciate being able to go straight into advanced classes in their major right away, Mertz says. Other students like having extra time to pursue a special interest such as anthropology, he says.

Some students take AP classes in high school and then take the equivalent class again in college. “They use the AP class as a dry run so they can take the same course by title in college and knock it out of the park right away,” says Ben Rous, HRA’s director of college counseling.

AP courses also attract positive attention when applying for college, Rous says. “One of the most important things colleges are looking for is did the student challenge himself/herself in high school,” Rous says. “AP classes are recognizably demanding.”

At HRA, Providence Classical School in Williamsburg and other private schools, some students are able to take AP tests and score well even without having taken the AP class. “We have a number of kids who don’t take the AP class, sit for the exam and still get AP credit,” Rous says.

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