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Image from Pexels.

It was the first week of my AP Lit class and I had already been told that I was going to be taking the exam and so was everyone else in my class. We were cheating ourselves and our school if we didn’t. If our parents felt any objection my teacher would contact them personally. If we didn’t qualify for a fee waiver then there was no question as to whether we could afford it.

I tuned out the untimely speech until I heard something startling: “If you want to get into a good college, you need to take this test. I’ve had several students report to me that colleges have rejected them specifically based on their decision to not take the AP exam.”

Now I was on high alert. This was contrary to everything that I’ve learned about the admissions process throughout the years, and I knew it was worth some investigation.

Why not take the test?

They’re resource-suckers and students simply don’t have the resources to spare. I took five AP exams last spring and spent an atrocious amount of time studying outside of school. Families that don’t qualify for fee waivers may not be willing/able to spend hundreds of dollars to ensure that their student takes every exam available to them. For a student struggling to pass their AP class, passing the test is the last thing on their mind.

Even with full intention to take the test, sometimes taking an AP exam simply isn’t possible. Alexis Zimmer, of scholasticwhimsy, recalls her difficulty with the AP Macroeconomics exam. “My school didn’t let me take the makeup, since I would be the only one, and I already had APUUG and APUSH credits at the time. I understand their reasoning behind it, since a proctor would have been required,” she says.

Why does everybody care so much?

The AP curriculum was created in the 1950s “to allow motivated students to work at the height of their capabilities and advance as quickly as possible.” The College Board writes that, “AP Exams are your opportunity to show what you know and what you can do.”

But why do we actually take them?

Most students take AP exams because at many colleges, a high-enough score will allow them to opt-out of an intro course of the same subject. This still doesn’t explain why our schools prioritize them so much. Surely getting students to take AP classes in the first place is arduous enough. Our administrations definitely aren’t breaking their backs to provide us with opportunities to “show what we can do” and save ourselves from freshman Chem lectures.

There turns out to be another side of the coin. Not only have high school students become more and more competitive, high schools have to compete for them. The number of AP courses offered and the student body’s test results are becoming increasingly important to a high school’s ranking. In April, 2013, U.S. News and World Report publicized their method of determining a high school’s “college readiness ranking,” a quantitative piece of data used to compare them with other schools. Students’ performance on AP exams is the final step in determining a high school’s national ranking. AP scores have become extremely important to how rigorous a school is considered to be, almost serving as a second API score.

What do colleges say about it?

This was the million-dollar question. Had I really wasted my time pounding the word ”holistic” into my brain when I should have been memorizing Supreme Court cases?

No. And here’s why: Colleges don’t care how many intro-level classes their students are able to test out of. In fact, they’d probably prefer that they take them. Dartmouth has recently received a lot of publicity regarding their elimination of AP credit because “Ultimately, [they] would like a Dartmouth education to take place at Dartmouth.” Many other top schools are following suit. So what do AP tests show colleges? Bev Taylor, founder of The Ivy Coach, explains how highly selective colleges view AP exams:

“They’re not after the grade grubber. They’re after the student who goes home, reads a book for pleasure, and aces his history exam because he loves history…not because he pulled an all-nighter studying.”

Applications from students of this caliber are not going to be significantly enhanced by any number of 5’s. That is already expected of them.

What do they think about the student whose school only offers six AP courses but he chose to take 3 additional AP tests (not courses, just tests)? They think…he’s mighty smart!

AP tests don’t kiss you or kill you. Even with a poor score, the Dean of Admissions from UPenn promises, “You have not lost your chances for admission based on the results of your A.P. test results,” and explains that a good letter of recommendation can easily compensate for a misstep in one’s area of interest.

The Choice writer  Leobardo Espinoza Jr. was admitted to Yale with an ACT score of 28. Bev Taylor’s son doodled all over his AP Calculus test and was still admitted to an Ivy League school. We have pounded “holistic” into our heads over and over again, and there is nothing we can do but believe it. We should be making choices about what’s important to us, and the AP Chemistry exam won’t always make the cut. “There is so much to learn in college,” says David W. Oxtoby, president of Pomona College. “It’s discouraging when students get so focused on the test.”



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