Advanced Placement: a stepping stone that won’t take you very far

On an evening in July, I sat at my computer. I was surrounded by two people who had their hands draped on me, effectively preventing me from moving. They had brought me here, and they were deathly silent. The room was incredibly tense.

No, I was not being held hostage. The people described above were my parents, who had brought me to check my AP scores. I could smell the incense that my mom had lit to create an auspicious setting. We were waiting for the results of my AP US History exam—my very first. It was the only one I had taken that year, but that did not prevent my mom and dad from taking it as yet another opportunity to stress over something. But, during AP season, I did not feel quite so scared. It was just one exam, after all.

This year is radically different. My mom lights the incense just about every other day and constantly reminds me to study—I am taking multiple APs. On top of that, I have exams in tabla, an Indian drum I study.

Don’t worry, this is not an article in which I will fruitlessly complain—I know other people who are in worse situations, such as those who are taking seven AP exams. Some even claim that, in the month preceding the test, they will teach themselves the material for an AP exam for which they have not taken a class.

But why take so many exams? Contrary to common belief, they do not result in higher academic performance. According to a Harvard  University study tracking the performance of students who had and had not taken the AP in college courses, “many [students scoring fives on their APs] performed at levels below the College Board’s claims of excellence even after taking a semester of the college science.” They were not better prepared for exams either—the study found that AP takers had taken an exam that was “overly generous [in comparison to college exams] and was not comprehensive.” Yikes.

The whole concept of a final exam at the end of a course, though, does simulate the pressure of college to some extent. The idea of AP weeks in May injects some anxiety into the exam system, anxiety that some might say is otherwise not present in PHS finals. Some classes do not have finals or have exemption systems through which large portions of students do not have to take the final. Thus, at the very least, students are put in the same atmosphere as college students.

This atmosphere can only go so far in preparing students for college, however. One night, as I was talking with my older sister, a college graduate, she said something that still scares me a little:

“Jai, college is far harder than anything junior year will throw at you.”

But let’s be realistic—a lot of people don’t look at the AP exams in this light. Most students simply see them as a tool to make their college applications more impressive, as is the case with many of the people aiming to self-teach the material on the exam. Yet we don’t really know how much of an impact they have on college applications. Is there a certain threshold—say, ten APs—after which the number of APs a student takes is irrelevant to colleges? How many is too many?

That is not to say that colleges do not consider the number of AP exams that their applicants have taken. They do—whether to judge the extent to which their applicants challenged themselves or to find evidence of a true passion their applicants claim to have. Sadly enough, that weight placed on AP courses results in a number of students attempting to fit in with the system, students who take little interest in their classes or self-study them, cramming a year’s worth of material into one or two months.

This should not be the case. New material is meant to be considered and internalized, not simply memorized. The students who are taking AP courses out of genuine interest are reaping the full benefits of learning. For those of you who are not, it’s your own fault that you aren’t getting enough sleep!