Graduating from college early sounds like a fantastic option to most students. It offers the potential to save money, get a jump on a career and stave off that dreaded senioritis.
Some students have this opportunity, due to Advanced Placement courses—but is the extra work in high school worth it, or are AP exams overrated?
First, a little bit of background on the concept of Advanced Placement: founded in 1956, AP classes are designed to give students a chance to complete college-level work while still in high school. The AP exams, which are administered by the College Board (which also oversees the SAT) give high-scoring students a chance to earn college credit for the topics they’ve mastered.
Proponents of the AP system argue that the potential to earn college credit and complete higher-level work in high school offers students a greater chance at success in college and the option of graduating in less than four years.
Others, however, claim that the courses promote rote memorization rather than simulating a true college-level class, that too much focus is placed on the exam, and that many colleges don’t award credit for a high test score.
As a student, on top of school, extracurricular activities, college admissions and a social life, the hours of homework required for an AP class can be daunting.
For a typical student, an AP class requires more work than a comparable non-AP class. In 2011, an article in the New York Times explored the subject of rethinking the tests; an AP Biology teacher is cited as complaining that the 1,400-page textbook provided by the College Board made it almost impossible to even touch upon all of the subjects that might be on the test. This teacher was not alone, and in 2013 the College Board revamped the biology and US history programs to narrow down the topics on the exam and steer students toward critical thinking habits. They are currently in the process of revising several more topics, including physics and European history, with the aim of releasing new exams over the next few years.
In short, for some students, the AP system pays off. For others, it’s a needless headache.
“The small things help,” said Christine, a junior psychology student from Austin, Texas. She came to St. John’s University in New York with nine credits from AP exams. “When you think about it, a semester could be 15 credits,” she explained.
Between the three classes of AP credit, CLEP tests, and taking the maximum number of credits each semester, Christine will be able to graduate in May, an entire year ahead of schedule.
On the other hand, Rick, a Pennsylvania native and a sophomore student at Penn State University, took four AP classes and six exams in high school but elected not to apply the credits to his degree in order to ensure that he mastered the material in core classes.
In a Stanford study, researchers found that AP students were typically more prepared to succeed in college, although “this success may not be attributable to the AP program alone,” according to the Washington Post. At the same time, the study found that students were unlikely to be at a financial advantage as a result of AP credits, because colleges treat AP scores differently. At some schools, students are required to take a minimum number of credits from that particular college; at others, AP tests allow students to skip to a higher level, but not to receive credit; and on top of that, it is rare for a student to score high enough to skip an entire semester of school, the study says.
AP exams, it seems, are ideal for driven students trying to get ahead in college, those bored in regular classes in high school and students who just want more challenging material. However, students should be aware that the AP program demands a lot from its students—endless memorization, huge amounts of information and, quite often, more homework than another class—and some students might not be able to reap the benefits, for whatever reason.
When all is said and done, the bottom line is this: Advanced Placement exams, like so much else in life, are what you make of them.