“As we review your applications, there are many things we will be looking for. One thing we are really keeping our eye out for on your transcript is rigor. How many AP courses have you taken? Are you challenging yourself?”
As a high school senior, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this line. It echoed through the walls of every college information session I attended. And it remained the nerve-wracking truth as I composed my college applications.
This year, The College Board offers AP courses in 37 subjects, which supposedly challenge students by preparing them for a test that will measure their comprehension of college-level material. If a student performs well, she might have the option of placing out of future college courses.
The College Board website reads, “You’ll face new challenges and learn new skills in the subjects you care about.”
In most cases, taking and doing well in AP courses help improve a student’s chance of getting into college, especially the most competitive schools, but are AP courses really all they are cracked up to be—especially when it comes to genuine learning?
In October, The Atlantic published a scathing condemnation of the AP program. “The courses cover too much material and does so too quickly and superficially,” writes John Tierney, a former professor of American government. “In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.”
I would add that students also face mounting pressure to beef-up their resumes, and I fear that the mere existence of the AP program pushes many students to take these courses for the wrong reasons. All of this contradicts what I have been lead to believe is the driving premise of college, to take courses out of passion and interest—not external motivators.
Granted, not all students take AP courses simply to get a star on their transcript. Elizabeth Leeder ’15 says, “I selected AP World History, AP English, and AP Art my senior year because I genuinely am passionate about those subjects and I admire the teachers who offer them.”
For Leeder, AP courses might be a good fit. All the same, I believe students looking for a challenge would be better served by another course, one just as rigorous—or even more so—but designed and taught by our own very capable teachers, who aren’t at the mercy of the College Board.
I also spoke to Alina Fischer ’16, who is enrolled in several AP courses, including AP Studio Art and AP Calculus. “I wish that instead of AP courses, schools would eliminate the ‘AP’ heading and offer the exact same rigorous courses to students genuinely interested in the subject,” she says. “This way, students would be learning simply out of passion of the work, and not to impress colleges.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Fischer, especially in that an underlying negative connotation is associated with the word “AP.” I also believe eliminating “AP” in a course title would help separate the truly interested students from those just trying to pad their resumes. Certainly, a case can be made for abolishing AP courses.
But I think whether to offer and take AP courses is linked to a more serious question—whether students are truly engaging in intrinsic learning or worrying too much about what looks good on paper.
As far as I can tell, most AP courses don’t enhance a love for learning. I support allowing teachers to craft and offer their own advanced courses, all to draw deeper student interest in mastering material. This would also help weed out uninterested students, and allow more individuals to pursue their own passions more closely.
Brimmer and May fosters a nurturing environment where students are not only hard workers, but also enthusiastic and avid learners. Rightfully so, our community takes pride in cultivating students with a lifelong thirst for knowledge. With some of the most talented teachers in the country, however, we should rethink a reliance on the AP program.
Instead, we should offer advanced courses that aren’t regulated by an outside organization that doesn’t know our students and how we learn best.