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MIT student blogger Jessie L. '07

Lies, damn lies, and statistics by Jessie L. '07

I read Ben‘s entry about the thread on College Confidential (in the parents’ forum) where parents were discussing the pressure to load up on AP classes. It was a good entry, and this was going to be a comment on it, but I decided that the comment would be too long. Because in addition to Ben’s entry, I read the thread. I did not know about College Confidential when I was applying to colleges, and this is probably a good thing because on the rare occasions I visit it, so much of what’s on it makes me angry or sad.

A bunch of the parents were very skeptical that you don’t need to pack your schedule with APs to get into a good school. You know, the reason APs help your application, as far as I can tell, is because they demonstrate your desire to challenge yourself and take risks (and also, I guess, because they can help explain a slightly lower GPA in some cases, not because they have magical properties. If you can otherwise demonstrate your desire to challenge yourself and take risks, you don’t “need” a bunch of APs. Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take them, just that you shouldn’t feel compelled.

Some of the parents in the thread said that APs are important because of weighted grades and class rank. Um, assuming things haven’t changed that much since I did this, most college applications ask for your unweighted GPA, so the fact that your GPA is 26.2 on a 4.0 scale or whatever is utterly irrelevant. I’m opposed to class rank, and my school was too and didn’t do it, but if you have an otherwise great application I think being ranked 20th instead of 5th in your graduating class is not going to hurt you.

Ben’s entry made me smile because it reminded me of one of my stories (Ben, I think I told you this story). I took a lot of AP classes in high school. In fact, I took 14 of them, including 8 in one year. This was because, in general, the AP classes were better and more fun than the non-AP classes in non-artsy subjects (my school had performing and visual arts magnet programs) at my school. This allowed me to win a National AP Scholar award, win the AP State Scholar Award two years in a row, and get profiled in the city newspaper. It was also an all-time record for my school.

Now comes the funny part…

Honestly, I didn’t think much of this. I took these classes because they were good classes. But not everyone shared my opinion. In particular, the younger Asian and Indian kids (I hate to specify race/ethnicity, but it was mostly the Asian and Indian kids). They thought I was some sort of god. They literally used to follow me around asking me odd questions. “How do you take so many AP classes?” “Do you ever have free time?” “Are you trying to finish high school a year early?” “How do you do it?” “Are you going to take every AP class?” This was kind of entertaining.

And they would make odd comments. “My parents want me to take as many AP classes as you.” “My parents say I won’t get into a good school if I don’t take more AP classes.” “My parents [blah blah blah] APs [blah blah blah] be like you.” I found this very creepy, that I was apparently idolized by half the Asian parents of duPont Manual High.

Seriously, everyone chill out. I think the biggest benefit of my APs in terms of getting into college was that, combined with a few other things in my application, demonstrated that I was willing to take risks.

I see posts on CC and comments on the blogs, and so many people are obsessed with statistics. My statistics were pretty good, but I’m sure a lot of you have/had better:

GPA: 3.85
Class rank: N/A
College classes: Creative Writing (an intro class), Medieval French Literature (a grad-level class)
APs: seven 5s, five 4s, one 3, one 2 (in Calc BC, with a 4 on the AB subsection…yeah, that’s right, I got a 2 on AP Calc and I still got into MIT! Hah!). Of those, four of them were math & science (Calc BC, Physics, Statistics, Computer Science AB)

PSAT: 80 verbal, 71 math, 80 writing, Nat’l Merit Finalist
SAT: 770 verbal, 800 math
SAT II: 760 writing, 700 molecular biology, 800 math IIC
Research: Intel ISEF regional 2nd (Health & Medicine), regional 3rd (Computer Science)

Extracurriculars: Varsity cross-country four years (captain senior year), junior varsity quiz bowl two years, varsity quiz bowl two years, science bowl three years (captain senior year), Science Olympiad two years (3 medals at state, two top 30 placings at nationals), summer league swimming age 6-18, summer league diving age 12-18, certified springboard diving judge age 15-18, ACLU Education Committee volunteer work senior year.

See, you really don’t have to have godlike stats to get in somewhere good. You don’t have to be valedictorian, be in the National Honor Society, and have a 4.0, 5s on all your APs, 1600 (or 2400 now, I guess) SAT, 800s on all your SAT IIs, attend a summer program at a university, and win at the ISEF international level. Notice how I had none of those qualifications. I had a lot of APs, but I could have had more – I didn’t take AP Bio because I didn’t like the way the class was taught at my school, I didn’t take AP Human Geography because it seemed pointless, I didn’t take AP Chem because it conflicted with another class that I really wanted to take.

And where, you might ask, did I get in with these qualifications?

Vanderbilt (with large scholarship offer)
University of Chicago
New York University
somewhere else I forget


Take APs if you think they will be good classes, not to pad your resume. And try to get good stats – have as few glaring negatives on your application as you can. But don’t decide that your life is over if your stats aren’t perfect. You can and will still get into good schools.

Incidentally, when I Googled my name the first page of results produced a thread on College Confidential, and I nearly had a heart attack. But it turned out to just be Mollie quoting me about housing.

13 responses to “Lies, damn lies, and statistics”

  1. Robb Carr says:

    I have already commented on most of this at Ben’s blog…but…

    “I read Ben’s entry about the thread on College Confidential (in the parents’ forum) where parents were discussing the pressure to load up on AP classes. It was a good entry, and this was going to be a comment on it, but I decided that the comment would be too long. Because in addition to Ben’s entry, I read the thread. I did not know about College Confidential when I was applying to colleges, and this is probably a good thing because on the rare occasions I visit it, so much of what’s on it makes me angry or sad.”

    I have to say I am inclined to agree there, I had not heard of it until I saw a reference in one of Ben’s posts (The one about MIT cheerleaders and his mother saying it made him sound like a dirty old man) so, I go read a few posts on the forums…it really just is not a pleasant atmosphere. People are becoming so caught up in

  2. (I found your blog through McGann’s Factors, I believe)

    That’s nice that your school offered that many AP classes. My high school offers only about one class in each department. French, Spanish, Calculus AB, Environmental Science, English Lit, Government, and Music. And to top it all off, they only allow you into the AP class based on a recommendation from your previous teacher and you also pretty much have to be on the honors track in that department. Which requires a recommendation from a previous teacher, and more classes than will physically fit into your schedule. So basically, it’s pretty much impossible to take more than a handful of AP courses… I’ll only end up with 4 when I’m done with my senior year. Which looks like I’m not taking risks, but it’s not because I chose not to – it’s because my school simply won’t allow it. Not to mention the fact that I’m at a liberal-arts-type school, and the teachers think that a B is a very very good grade.

    *grumble grumble*


  3. Anonymous says:

    You guys are real lucky to have advanced classes like that. Many of my classmates have already mastered the subjects we are currently taking but we cant take any higher level classes because our education system does not allow it. In primary school, I was able to follow a slightly advanced class because I was part of the school maths team and also have an encouraging teacher than often answer many of my curious questions. However, during my secondary school education, most teachers were trained to teach only what was required for the public examinations, PMR and SPM, and we had to follow the class schedule given to us by the school. By the time I was in Form 2 (2nd year), I took outside tuitions for maths because I was bored with what was being taught in school. By that time, I was already learning what was supposed to be taught only in Form 4 and Form 5. Unfortunately, at the end of that year, my tuition teacher left for Australia. If we were to have such courses as AP in our education system, no doubt that most of my classmates would be doing that as we are totally bored with our current subjects. Most of us currently do our own researches online in the subjects that we are interested in. (this is one of the reasons I would like to study in MIT as one is free to choose any course he likes to study even though some of them has no relation to his major) I would definitely like to pursue my musical interests together with physics and maths (engineering).

  4. oops didnt mean to be annoymous

  5. Mollie says:

    Hee, you and I apparently had the same idea today, writing about stats. Guess everybody will have an overdose of anecdotal evidence today! smile

    I actually just commented on the CC thread, since I had THREE APs in high school, NONE of which were in math or science. And I still got in.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “It really just is not a pleasant atmosphere… [people] are missing the larger picture or in the case of MIT they are missing the whole ‘point’.”

    This is true in many cases. But this is why I contribute to CC – I think it’s important to try to correct the misinformation that so often perpetuates there. And I’m starting to notice a bit of a difference, at least in the MIT forum. (Disclaimer: I don’t ever read any of the “chances” threads.”) grin

  7. Ben says:

    Ooops, didn’t mean to be anonymous.

  8. dave glasser says:

    heh. my high school (which similarly did not do class rank, but didn’t do GPA either) is eliminating APs as fast as they can. US History got the axe before the year I would take it, and I was in the last class of Senior AP Literature. The math and language departments still like it, but the English and history departments have I think dumped all of them by now, and the science department basically teaches “AP classes” where they don’t teach to the curriculum and you have to study with outside sources to be prepared for the test.

    and it’s a better school for that.

    (also, dude, i never knew you did cross country.)

  9. Talia says:

    yeah, that board makes me want to break things.

  10. Wow, this is random, but i am from Elizabethtown, down by ft. Knox…i thought that it was cool ur from Louisville…It’s nice to kno of ppl from KY that get into great schools, it gives me hope….(by the way, i apolgize for all of the abreviations, im in a hurry)…

  11. Your stats are so good.And i loved the article.

  12. dan says:

    i was really fascinated at your story.could i know the number of times you applied to college.i learnt from u that you got admitted to other schools but you opted for mit.why?
    i am from ghana.
    what are the academic evironments at mit like.

  13. Emily says:

    Those aren’t godlike stats?!?