To my surprise, one of Marilee’s quotes in my last entry about the role of Advanced Placement (AP) courses in college admissions turned out to be somewhat controversial:
Jones believes that creativity and innovative thinking are taking a hit. “Because students are so busy all the time, because parents think that’s what they need to get into college, and we in college admissions officers reinforce that, they don’t get into their imagination enough,” Jones says. Her remedy: “Let’s free up a lot of kids to be able to do that and not force everybody to have all of those AP classes and all of those activities.”
Here are two of the comments that entry received:
“So, what can our students do to get your fair judgement about admitting them or rejecting them? Hide their AP’s on the application?” — W.L.
“Isn’t taking several APs in the sciences and math a way to show the student’s passion in the sciences? I know many students who take loads of advanced courses because to them gaining knowledge is enjoyable.” — Deepta
I don’t know if I’ll do this justice, but I’ll give it a shot. Here goes.
Look, we’re not saying you should drop or hide all of your AP courses. In many schools, I know, AP courses are the best (and sometime the only) option for students looking to be challenged and intellectually engaged. And Deepta, I wholeheartedly agree, taking advanced courses for love of learning is a great reason to do so. In our admissions process, we are looking for students who enjoy a challenge and love learning, becuase these are the students who will best thrive in the MIT community.
What makes me sad is when students focus on their studies to the detriment of everything else because they think it is what we (college admissions officers) want. I think this is what Marilee is trying to say in the above quote. We believe that balance in life is important: balance between formal and informal studies, balance between work and play, balance between the work of the textbook and the work of the imagination. Too many times I’ve had students tell me about the pressure to add another AP course — sometimes a fifth, sixth, or seventh AP course for the year (!) — and, consequently, drop something they really enjoy, like reading, band, field hockey, time with family, etc. It (sadly) isn’t all that infrequent that I hear a student say something like, “Well, I’m cutting back on that to focus on more APs for my senior year, so I can get into a good college.” Or, “I dropped band because it was an unweighted course, even though I loved it, so I could take the weighted AP basketweaving course, because that is ‘the most rigorous courseload available.'”
Marilee Jones isn’t the only one who is concerned. I can tell you from conversations with my colleagues at other schools that this is something that is a concern across college admissions. Take, for example, this quote (from here) from Bill Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions at Harvard:
“There are people who arrive at college out of gas,” says William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s crazy for students to think in lockstep they must take four or five or six advanced-placement courses because colleges demand it.”
…or this quote [PDF] from a couple years ago from Robin Mamlet, who, at the time, was Dean of Admissions at Stanford:
One thing we are trying to do is dispel the myth that a curriculum loaded to the brim with Advanced Placement courses—with no regard to a student’s happiness or personal interests—is a prerequisite for admission to Stanford. Such a course load is not required, nor is it always healthy.
Whenever we talk to students and parents, we encourage them to work with you [guidance counselors] to develop an appropriate course load. Of course we want students to challenge themselves, but we don’t want them to hurt themselves physically or mentally along the way. We try to explain to families that the students who will thrive at Stanford are those who are genuinely excited about learning, not necessarily those who take every single AP or Honors or Accelerated class. We tell students we expect them to take a reasonably challenging load, selecting from among the most demanding courses available to them. And we make it clear that we want students to work with you to exercise good judgment in course selection.
We, too, expect students to challenge themselves, especially in the analytical disciplines (since MIT is, by any estimate, an analytically rigorous school). It is true that few students who had the option to take AP Calculus and an AP science (or similarly advanced calculus and science curricula, such as IB, A level, college classes, etc.) and chose, for no good reason, not to take them, find themselves admitted. And many students will avail themselves of further advanced coursework. For many students, we do see their creativity and excitement for learning coming through most clearly in the classroom and related activities, and when we see this, we do pay attention.
There are now 37 AP courses. My high school offered just 3: Calculus, American History, and English. And I certainly had classmates who came from high schools that offered zero APs. Similarly, I had classmates who attended high schools that offered dozens of these courses, and, yes, some of them even took dozens of APs. But it is not necessary that you take all of these courses, or as many as possible.
I know this isn’t a problem everywhere, or even at most high schools. But with the interconnectedness between students, I have seen this super-anxiety over APs grow over the years. I hope this entry goes a small way in helping to reduce that stress.
Let me state clearly: we do not admit students solely because of their AP courses/scores. There is no minimum or recommended number of AP courses. AP scores are not part of an admission formula. We’re not simply going to look at a weighted GPA and throw everything else out. Challenge yourself in a way that is reasonable for you, while making sure that your courseload provides your with material that keeps you excited and engaged, and that you have balance in your life. What we are saying is that, despite what you may have heard, college admissions isn’t a game of whoever has the most APs, wins.