College & Career

By Julianne Micoleta
Elk Grove

With the cutthroat competitiveness of college admissions these days, teens are pulling out all the stops, including taking excessive amounts of Advanced Placement (AP) classes to ensure their acceptance to dream schools.

The debate about whether to take rigorous courses during high school to look desirable to college admissions, though, remains a hot-button issue.

“Kids hear this over and over again: They should be taking a rigorous course,” Elk Grove counselor Scott Deutsch said. “They hear it over and over again because it’s true. Colleges want to see rigor on transcripts.”

And according to the eighth annual AP Report to the Nation, over the last 10 years, more students than ever before have challenged themselves by taking college-level coursework in high school. But this is where the question of how many AP courses a student should take and whether or not to take them stems.

According to the report, which analyzed exam data from 2001-2011, 109 percent more students are leaving high school having taken an AP exam than in 2001, and nearly 95 percent more students are scoring a 3 or higher on the exams than in 2001.

In Illinois, 18.5 percent of graduating seniors at public high schools scored a 3 or higher on their AP exams in 2011—an increase of 7.5 percent over  2001—and just slightly above the national average of 18.1 percent.

Some highly selective colleges and universities want to see at least two or three AP courses on a student’s transcript per year, while other institutions say two or three for an entire high school career may be fine.

In context, many teens are feeling the pressure to take AP courses. For Elk Grove junior Jena Bartodziej, the pressure to take AP classes isn’t just coming from the desire to get into college, but from her peers as well.

“I feel as though making the decision to take AP classes is almost like giving into peer pressure: Everyone else is doing them. If you don’t go for those higher-level classes, you feel left out and maybe even a little inferior,” Bartodziej said. “I feel pressure to take AP classes from the competitiveness of our society in that I don’t want to feel as though I’m falling behind my peers.”

For Prospect junior Sherin Thomas, the competition is what drives her to take AP courses.

“I’m not an all-AP fanatic,” Thomas said. In fact, she said she wouldn’t mind not taking AP courses at all. But she’s concerned how not taking the courses could affect her future.

When deciding between human physiology and AP biology for next year’s course load, Thomas said she wondered if the AP course would benefit her more in the long run.

“In the back of my mind … I was like ‘But what if I have a better chance of getting into this program because I took AP bio,’ ” she said.

In addition, many students feel one of the major flaws in the AP system is that every class is geared toward a standardized test. The result is that comprehensive learning is sacrificed for the sake of test preparation, with teachers spending the most time on topics likely to appear on the AP exam.

“While in some respect I do feel as though teachers are only ‘teaching to the test,’ ultimately, you learn a lot in AP courses simply because there is just so much more content to cover,” Bartodziej said.

However, more students are finding it difficult to balance the demands of AP classes with jobs and extracurricular activities.

“I have trouble managing my time,” Thomas said. “I also work, so doing AP classes, extracurriculars and work is really stressful and can be a bit much at times.”

In a 2010 Counselor Update newsletter from the University of Wisconsin at Madison admissions office, interim director Tom Reason wrote: “So where do we … stand in this debate? [...] We don’t expect students to take every AP or IB course available. We do expect students to have made thoughtful choices that exemplify full preparation for college. Rigorous course work without performance in that course work is not what we’re after and will not be fruitful.”

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The Mash is the Chicago Tribune's newspaper and website written for teens, by teens. The paper is distributed for free each Thursday at Chicago-area high schools and is written largely by high school students.

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