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On APs by Matt McGann '00

Trying to clarify the role of AP courses in the MIT admissions process.

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.

37 responses to “On APs”

  1. Bob says:

    Are we supposed to send our AP scores to you through College Board (during the admissions process) or do we just submit them in May of our senior year when we take our APs?

  2. A Mom says:

    I am a homeschooling mother. My son is a junior, and my roll at this point is more of a counselor.

    I find the mixed messages from top schools like MIT very frustrating. Our kids are supposed to be well rounded, our kids are supposed to show passion in one area, our kids are supposed to show an independent streak, our kids are supposed to collect as many data points on their apps as possible.

    Here is a case – last year we were at a meeting. There were several alumni recruiters there, including someone from MIT. I was talking to him, and he said with great pride “Three AP exams are baseline at MIT, we have kids applying with 21!” I think I was supposed to be impressed. Without thinking that I might be alienating the man who might someday interview my son, I shot back with “Have you any idea how elitist that sounds?” He immediately backed down from the statements and assured me that was not the only thing that MIT looked for, but his initial goal was to impress me with that fact.

    When I was in High School, I dont think the whole admission process was so transparent, so we just did what we did, and some of us tried to do a good job. Now everyone is second guessing the whole process, and it is like trying to hit a swiftly moving target.

  3. Daniel says:

    Guess I got off lucky — my HS only offered one AP class…

    This whole thing is a confusing mess for us… They should rename the courses from “Advanced Placement” to “Intensity and Curiosity” courses, and get rid of weighted GPA’s. =)

  4. Anonymous says:

    uh,,i’m from india…I’m a high school senior..but i’m lost..what are APs?..and how do i calculate my GPA?..
    in my HS we give a take a set of tests on all our 7 subjects and in march we take the ISC exams(these results will be out in may/june 2006)..which is given throughout india..i’m!!!!
    also..the results of my ISC will be out in may or june that too late?will you be needing those???
    thanx a bunch…

  5. Anonymous says:

    i’m into a LOTS of extra curricular activities..but no olympiads and stuff..i’m the HS student council that somewhere close to good enough?

    and how much is college going to cost me?(approx?)(international student-india)

  6. Anonymous says:

    i’m learning how to play a few musical instruments..but my course is not complete…i am not ready to play..but while at MIT,can i pursue learning how to play these instruments?

  7. Anonymous says:

    i’m learning how to play a few musical instruments..but my course is not complete…i am not ready to play..but while at MIT,can i pursue learning how to play these instruments?

  8. Anonymous says:

    hey matt!!!
    its me..the anonymous one again…smile..
    realistically brutal.i’m a prospective international student from india..what is the maximum scholarship i can get to cover my fees etc?(percentage-wise)?i take part in a lot of extra curricular activities and i am a national level sportsperson..but all sports aren’t big here…so…?
    will doing well on my SATs get me scholarships?

    the medium of instruction in my school is english and my primary language has been english for as long as i can remeber…would you still want me to take the TOEFL?

  9. Steve White says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I know your statements could be taken in a lot of different ways, but I felt the tone of your message carried well and made it clear that you are neither “against AP” nor “pushing AP.” You were trying to be honest, so even though I have 6 APs this year and had 4 year last I’m not going to assume you think I’m an artifical masochist that is “playing the game.”

    The truth is that I just don’t think AP classes are that hard. So, I took all the AP classes available, and independent study (the most rigorous because I get to set the standards). I do have the regrets you mentioned, all the details like worksheets and notebooks and practice problems from all those classes build up and are starting to infringe on my personal projects. But I don’t care, I’ll just take the low A or B and realize I was wrong. Its more important I keep working on programming and working to end poverty than that I get a higher grade or GPA.

    Thank you for validating everything I’ve been telling me friends, by the way. Some people are hurting themselves taking too many APs and staying up until midnight every night. Some people I know did give up on band and thats just not right.

  10. Shuja says:

    I’m taking Chem, Bio, and Physics this year, but not to just “load” up on APs. I really wanted to do them. It’s been really tough, but I enjoy it.

  11. Kid says:

    So I shall most definitely be including a statement to the effect of “I took 7 APs this year because I utterly love those subjects and wanted to amuse myself with a challenge and completely disregarded the fact that by doing so, I may be murdering my GPA/rank.” It’s true, and I’d just rather not have an admissions officer think that I’m attempting to play the AP game.

    Look, I think I understand what you’re saying Matt but it could easily be taken both ways.

  12. Sam Jackson says:

    I took Euro my 10th grade year, but in 11th I had begun to interface with the college counselling office. I asked if I should take any APs, and was told “only if you feel like spending 80$” AP credits aren’t really honored anywhere I want to go for any AP courses I am taking; some do offer ‘advanced placement’ in the skip-out-of-intro course sense of the word. I don’t expect I’ll be taking any APs this year, either, although I suppose my AP bio course is very much expecting me to do so. I will see how things stand in the spring.

    AP bio is the first ‘AP’ course I took–euro ended at 1914 in JUNE, and the AP was in May, so it was just a normal class, more or less. AP bio does in fact work to cram everything in, though. I’m just taking it because it is the top-level general biology course, though. Fun stuff.

  13. Anthony says:

    Great post, Matt. smile

  14. I definitely recommend taking at least AP Calculus AB and an AP Science. If you can’t handle the content in these courses, you’ll be crushed at MIT, to be honest. The courses here are much harder than AP’s (but generally a lot more interesting too).

    You shouldn’t shape your life around a college. Do what you like in high school and challenge yourself, but don’t try to became the perfect MIT applicant just for some artificial reason.

    To add my personal account…I took 4 AP’s my junior year and 2 my senior year. Junior year: Calc BC (school offers only AB so I self-studied the rest), Stats, Physics B, APUSH. Calc, Stats, and physics were all classes that I wanted to take. APUSH I took because there was no middle ground. It was either CP or AP and I just didn’t want to be in the CP class. My classmates wouldn’t be as serious, everything would have been easier, and it would have been a waste of my time compared with AP.

    Senior year I had Chem and US Gov’t. Chem I really wanted to take. US Gov’t, again, was only offered at CP and AP levels. I would have taken AP Microecon also, but not enough people signed up for AP!! That was frustrating but I did have the interesting experience of being in a class with students in my class I’d never seen.

    Sorry this is so long, but my point is that you should take AP classes for a reason…and not because it will get you into University X. There’s too much else you could be doing to burn your time and energy on an AP that you hate.

  15. anonymous says:

    Listing the basic requirement for admissions is like saying Any citizen over 35 can run and be elected for president! I suggest read the credentials of accepted and rejected on “College Confidetial”a very useful website.A reasonably bright student has Less than 10% chance of getting admitted unless He is Legacy, URM or an athlete.It is even tougher if you are Asian or Middle class white Male or International . I suggest read” Price of admission”by Daniel Golden before you start applying to Ivies and MIT.

  16. tokenadult says:

    “Challenge yourself in a way that is reasonable for you” is a good philosophy of life. Thanks for mentioning what is really important.

    I also appreciate the comments on APs (and other aspects of hypercompetitiveness in college admission) in your colleague Ben’s blog post:

    In the math team I coach, I know of a few kids who are at least thinking about applying to MIT, but fortunately I know NONE who are obsessing about how many AP courses they are racking up. The idea of the balanced life seems to be part of the regional culture here, and I hope that the young people I know locally continue to feel safe to take no more AP courses than those that make sense for their own learning goals.

    P.S. Shout out to Joseph L.: it’s good to see you posting as a current MIT student. Congratulations.

  17. First off, thanks Matt for coming to visit the Kansas/Missouri area Sunday, it helped me in tons of ways. Secondly, I would definately agree with your idea about AP classes. Coming from a small high school in the Middle of Nowhere, Kansas, I have already taken all the relevent AP classes this year (soph.) or will take them next year. Come time for senior year, I’ll be taking such classes as AP Psych., Music Theory, Literature, Go/Po, and Economics. Sure, these classes could be challenging, but are nowhere near relevent to what I want to persue in my life. I think I’ll have to talk with my counselor about taking more independent courses or as you suggested, just skipping my senior year. All in all, great idea on AP and thanks again for stopping by.

  18. Deb says:

    i really think your blog was great – it basically put into words how I’ve been feeling lately. I’m a HS senior, and I’m taking 6 APs, but only because they all interest me, and I’ve still kept the same extracurriculars since freshman year. But in all of my classes there are kids that have taken jumps from 2 APs to 6, and its ridiculous because they’re always complaining that they had to drop extracurricular ‘X’ just because of the workload from classes. And it bugs me to see that so many seniors are doing it this year too. However, sometimes I’m worried that my feelings towards why I take classes and why I love them (yada yada yaa) won’t reflect in my application. Maybe I’m stressing too much – though hopefully it’s not the case.

  19. Reg says:

    now i don’t feel bad about taking three sciences and maths for my a levels. i love them, afterall :D

  20. Adam says:

    Hey, anonymous –
    It IS true, for the most part, that only very bright students are accepted. It is, however, not true that you need to be, “Legacy, URM or an athlete”. Sure, these things will probably help, but only if the entire applicant is good.

    The reason so many children of MIT grads get accepted is not because their parents are from MIT. It is because their parents fit MIT well, and children tend to be similar to their parents, thus fitting MIT as well.

    For the most part, MIT seems to be made up of (roughly quoting from somewhere else, can’t quite remember), “Normal people, just brighter”. You don’t have to be an √Љbergenius that participates in every single high school activity to be accepted. (In fact, MIT probably doesn’t even WANT them.) MIT doesn’t want a bunch of students that are already burnt out..

    Sorry for taking over your blog, Matt, but I wanted to try to clear up some of those misconceptions.. Feel free to correct me if I’ve made any mistakes in my evaluation of MIT admissions. grin


  21. Dad from AZ says:

    I have read through your list of postings, and have received some important information and thank you all for that. What I am looking for is that my sixth grade son has indicated to us and his teachers that he wants to attend MIT. I give him credit for knowing what he wants. He is involved in band, scouts, and sports, loves reading books, starting his own business, and is bored with his honor classes because, as he put it, they do not challenge him enough. I realize that he needs to be a child, but what can we focus on, to make him a stronger candidate for MIT or another university?

  22. Kaushik says:

    This is addressed to the International anonymous poster. Although I can’t speak for MIT, I’m confident that their admissions office has experience with the ISC syllabus in India as there will have been applicants from this syllabus before and there will be this year (I’m one of them).

    As regards your individual questions, I’m sure that if you email the admissions office they’ll respond to your queries.

    Best of luck!

  23. Anshuman says:

    Hey Matt,
    Do the teachers send in their recommendations directly to MIT ( like the Secondary school evaluation?). Also, we are to receive our 12th standard results after January. So, will it be a problem if I send in only the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th standard results?

  24. Ruben says:

    It seems that competition for acceptance has been defined by the media and counselors alike that you have such a low chance of getting accepted that if you want to be able to survive even a little bit you need to go beyond the preferred courses (completely over passing any and all required courses). Very soon, students will be going to college at earlier and earlier ages. Though, it does seem odd that how the older you get the worse you are at learning, yet the older you get the more important the things that you are taught. I am willing to bet that if the teachers at any elementary school were to teach in such a manner that when you get to 6th grade you already know AP Calculus upside down, the students would: not have any trouble learning the material, would express more interest in the subject (instead of taking 6 years to get to Calculus, you only take 1, making it a whole lot exciting & appealing), would squander less time in school. Instead of entering life in your twenties (1/4 of your life gone), you enter in your teens (only 1/8 of your life gone). In addition, instead of playing video games or taking wood shop, you could actually be designing video games and actually building houses. It seems that every one is trying to squeeze every thing in during their high school years. By the way, in regards to the actual subject, if MIT takes the best of the best then it’s survival of the fittest (I do believe the previous is a well exaggerated exaggeration).
    (If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done. – Murphy’s law)

  25. Dan says:

    This makes my day.

  26. AnotherMom says:


    Great blog entry. Thank you. As tokenadult mentioned, I like your statement “Challenge yourself in a way that is reasonable for you.” It really makes a lot of sense.

    To A Mom, I served as counselor to my homeschooled child as well. We used AP exams to allow the opportunity to take advanced courses at local university while in high school. We viewed it as a stepping stone. She did not take many AP exams but she took what was necessary to allow her to take the college courses she wanted to take while in high school. I can appreciate the frustration that you feel. However, I truly believe that by allowing my daughter to follow her passions her independent streak, tenacity, and willingness to think “outside of the box” were readily apparent to admissions officers. She did not worry about taking every AP exam because unlike traditionally schooled students, she had other options available. Good luck with the process.

  27. Kimberly says:

    Arg. So confused. Ok. So science/math wise my high school only offers a couple of course (all of which I have taken). I have also gone to the other high school in my district to take one of the ones not available. And I have simultaneously been taking a fair amount of community college classes, without decreasing my high school course load. Is that bad? I do it because I am really type A and I love learning, not because I want to get into college.

  28. Adam says:

    Kimberly –
    Realax! Just do what YOU want to do! Believe me, after reading your application, I’m sure the admissions officers have a fairly good picture of what you are like, and they’ll know whether or not you are taking the large courseload just because you want to learn. So don’t worry about what MIT thinks, and (I know you’ve probably heard this 1,000,000 times..) be yourself on your application. If you hide your personality behind big, formal words and sentences, they won’t be able to see your passion for learning.

    Anyway, good luck,

  29. mb says:

    i agree, as a highschool senior with more than enough math under my belt, i am at the point where the math class ap calculus is very hard and gets in the way of my life’s balance. i dropped it and still have 3ap and a honor with a good overall curriculum. i’ll just show my math skill on the sat, previously couldn’t show it on the sat because never prepared for it because of the hecticness of my junior year workload. the most important thing is to challenge yourself within what is reasonable of yourself.. everything else should be natural

  30. Robert Carr says:

    I am personally somewhat torn as to the role of AP courses. On one hand I much appreciate the opportunity to take more advanced courses, and generally enjoy it. However, I have found that the courses tend to have such a focus on the AP test that less content is covered, and it is covered in such a narrow way that it not likely to be very beneficial (except for doing well on the test!)
    I have found my experiences with things such as: to be much more beneficial.

  31. Jacqueline says:

    Hi Matt,
    I’ve been in the Albertan school system for almost all of my high school. Although AP courses are not offered at most schools here (including mine), our math and sciences programs were recently ranked second and third in the world by the Economist. From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that an unweighted A in a weighted, “pre-AP” class at my high school in the US was much easier to obtain than an A here.
    I’m just wondering if the admissions staff is aware of national/provincial differences when considering GPA and course rigor.

    On another note, should I complete the Self-Reported Coursework form in the application for the courses I took in the US? Or should I just leave the whole form blank?

    Thanks smile

  32. Hey,

    I just heard about MIT blogs from a friend. I just wanted to say I appreciate all the information I gathered reading the admission counselor’s advice.

    Thank you,

    Keshav Raghavan

  33. Alisha says:

    Wow! This was very helpful – kind of eyeopening too. I am a HS senior in Waterloo, Canada and I am considering MIT as an option. I’m only taking 2 APs and considering a third. I do a lot of extracurricular activities and generally would like to keep my life free of even more APs – would this put me at a disadvantage?

  34. Garnet says:

    Ahhh I’m glad. At my school, everyone takes so many APs- I’m taking 3 right now (Calc BC, Environmental Science, and Economics)- and that’s still below the norm. Kinda scary… most of my friends have 5 or 6… one has 7. I love learning about these subjects, and I wouldn’t sacrifice symphony orchestra (yay 4th year there!) for another AP I’m not even interested in.

  35. Lu says:

    Wow… twenty one APs… That’s a little intense. Do people really have such a wide span of interest? Admirable! I’m definitely a “physics + history + language” type of person, so I guess I could understand the wide variety.
    Anyhow, I’m someone who have the regular number of APs for my school and did pretty well, but most of my time for the last few years has been focused on extracurriculars that are either clubs or recreational activities that I probably cannot put onto my applications(running,relief efforts, painting, music…)Would this situation put me at a disadvantage? Oh, and is there more specific information online about the various majors?

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