Sunday, January 12, 2014

Choosing Classes: To A.P. or not A.P.?

Student assembly address:

That is the question.

So we're at that time of year again when you must begin thinking about selecting classes for next year--unless you're a senior, involved in selecting which college you want to attend.

One of the common questions you'll be asking yourself is how hard of a schedule should you take next year. So, for example, should I take an AP class, or two (or three, or four)? What if I take the A.P. class and end up with a lower grade--will that hurt me for college?

Take the A.P. class.

Colleges won’t tell you this outright, but the truth is that grade point averages are so inflated and differ so wildly between high schools that colleges cannot use them to make any meaningful comparisons between applicants.

Instead, they increasingly rely on two simple measurements: entrance test scores and the difficulty of the curriculum taken in high school.

Mr. Brown has been collecting data for years now that confirms the primacy of test scores: Incoming freshman at schools like Belmont or University of Dayton have virtually identical high school GPA’s as Vanderbilt or Notre Dame, but Belmont students score an average of 25-26 on the ACT, whereas Vandy and ND students score an average of 33.

Fair or unfair, test scores allow universities to make a quick “apples to apples” comparison of applicants, regardless of which high school an applicant attends or region of the country he or she resides.

Unfortunately, this means that some students may work very hard in high school and get nearly all  A’s, but if their test scores aren’t within range of the freshman class to which they’re applying, they have almost zero chance of being accepted, unless they possess some virtuoso talent of importance to the university (like football ability) or are part of an under-respresented group the university desires.

The second critical variable in college admissions is the difficulty of curriculum taken while in high school.

On the “common application” now required by 400+ colleges for admission, there is a telling question that must be filled out by the high school counselor:

In comparison with other college preparatory students in your school, the applicant’s course selection is (choose one): “most demanding”, “very demanding”, “demanding”, “average” or “below average”.

I believe that if the counselor must choose anything less than “most “ or “very” demanding, you have very little chance of getting accepted to an elite school.

There’s a seedy side to all this. Because publications like U.S. News and World Report rank colleges partly on the basis of acceptance rates of applicants (thus determining whether the school is “very selective” or merely “selective”), colleges do their best to encourage as many applications as possible so they can reject as many as possible. The “common application” makes it easy for kids to apply to multiple schools and thus plays into this game very neatly. Ever since the common application became—well, common—the volume of applications to the typical university has grown tremendously.

Unfortunately, college admissions offices have not grown proportionately, meaning that counselors now must look for quick, simple ways to sort through the overwhelming pile of applications on their desk. College entrance scores and the difficulty of courses become even more important in this light.

Which brings us back to " A.P. or not to A.P.?"

Advanced Placement courses are based on first tier curricular standards. A.P. teachers must attend professional development workshops sponsored by the College Board to be certified to teach to these standards. They are typically among the school's best teachers. If a child spends a year being challenged by conscientious, talented teachers who are guided by demanding standards, the reasonable expectation is that the student will acquire knowledge and skills that will help him for life—and in the nearer term, improve his college entrance scores.

And oh, by the way, Mr. Brown can check off that “most demanding" box!

And if you're not in that AP or not category, be sure to take the most rigorous set of electives you can handle next year--the logic works the same way: If you push yourself, you'll do better on those national tests, which make all the difference. In the end, hard work matters. It really does. 

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