Bartlett: The AP Arms Race

The current "AP" obsession is unhealthy and restrictive.

by Nicholas Bartlett | 1/18/18 12:45am

The United States currently has a problem in the realm of academia, and for once it is not solely budget related. Instead, this particular issue stems from advanced placement courses, the likes of which have proliferated throughout the nation’s high schools. The dilemma is in the growing lack of curricular flexibility precipitated by their presence, which promotes adherence to a label rather than the pursuit of one’s interests.

Of course, students are technically permitted to dabble in different subjects in high school, but delving outside of the category of classes labeled “AP” is seldom conducive to success when it comes to college admissions. AP courses possess a centralized curriculum in which success is measured by a nationwide test at the end of the academic year. Students who perform exemplarily receive a 5; those who perform well a 4, solidly a 3, below average a 2 and dreadfully a 1. Conceptually, AP courses attempt to provide a nationwide baseline by which colleges and universities may rank their prospective students, allowing for an objective measure of evaluation independent of the caliber of school whence the applicant comes.

From this objectivity, however, comes a prioritization of AP courses above their “regular” alternatives, and this paradigm effectively places students seeking to apply to high-caliber institutions into an intellectual quagmire. Do they pursue a non-weighted, non-AP interest to narrow their options and continue to study what they enjoy, or do they take every honors and AP course available to pad their résumé? The latter, unfortunately, is the much more common approach — and practically a compulsory one. Not maximizing the number of AP courses on one’s schedule means giving an inherent advantage to one’s contemporaries when it comes to vying for limited spots at elite colleges. That is a risk many students cannot afford to take.

That many students feel pressured to take a course because of its label and not its content is a shame, as it forces students to pursue disciplines of little to no interest. For instance, let us say that Jimmy loves writing. He takes every AP English course his school offers and knows that this is something he loves to do. Once he has exhausted those options, he has to choose between taking a lower level writing class and AP Biology — which he decidedly dislikes. He is asked to choose between cultivating his passion and adding another course with contents that will have little lasting impact. For Jimmy to choose the former is to place himself in a precarious position which could inhibit his lifelong goal of attending a prestigious university, so he elects to take AP Biology. As a result, he loses out on a year’s worth of development of the skill that could ultimately become his livelihood. And while this situation is hypothetical, the problems inherent to AP courses are real and unfortunate.

Not only does the desire for an application laden with AP courses inhibit academic exploration, it also punishes students from smaller, less well-funded high schools that are unable to support the same course offerings as their more privileged counterparts. In these cases, even if a student has earned a high GPA, scored well on ACT or SAT exams and has engaged in diverse extracurricular pursuits, a slightly below average number of AP courses — something that is entirely out of their control — may make the student a less favorable candidate. Even if unintentional, judging students by this metric impedes academic mobility and undermines the notion of higher education as a meritocracy.

The current fetishization of “AP fanatics” is a reality whose pros are far outweighed by its cons, as students are continuously forced to choose between what they really want to study and what they feel that they need to study. Such a choice is never conducive to long-term intellectual success, hurting both individual students as well as our prospects as a society. After all, passion for one’s work is perhaps the greatest catalyst toward promising results and innovation. It is time for AP courses to cease being the end-all-be-all and for students to be allowed to discover and pursue their interests at a younger age. Only then will we move past the mere façade of individuality masking a search for minute differences amid a sea of homogeneity and at last adopt the notion of “celebrating what makes you different” as the staple of admissions criteria and the collegiate experience.