Supporting Student Success

Balancing Act: How Many Advanced Placement Classes are Too Many?

By Emily Fenton Jacobson, APEX Tutoring

For high-achieving high school students, finding and maintaining a healthy academic balance is a tall order. As parents, we watch our diligent, sometimes overwhelmed kids take on one AP class after another in the name of getting into a good college. It can feel as though we’re the anxious audience, breathlessly watching as a tightrope walker ventures out onto a high wire.

How much is too much? Or, more precisely: how many Advanced Placement courses are too many for one high schooler to handle?

As the college admissions landscape continues to grow more competitive, participation in AP classes has spiked. According to the College Board, in May 2017, 2.7 million high school students took nearly 5 million Advanced Placement tests. Demand for AP classes and prep for the exams have risen so sharply that some schools offer AP tests and courses to middle schoolers, while some high school students are encouraged to load up on as many AP classes as possible—six a year or more.

The AP Edge

Parents often encourage their children to take more AP courses because they hope to improve their chances of admission into more selective or prestigious colleges. And very real benefits to taking AP courses certainly exist: they can introduce students to academically rigorous curricula; teach college-level critical thinking and study skills; and provide an independent source of testing to ensure students have learned the material. AP exams can also help lower tuition costs at universities that accept high scores in lieu of college credits.

But AP overload comes at a price. A multi-part Chicago Tribune report found that in “many top-performing schools, students and experts describe an atmosphere of intense, sometimes disabling, pressure connected with test scores, college admissions and AP course loads.”

B.Y.O. Balance

Students cannot sustain the high-wire act of high school if they are struggling to carry too heavy an AP load while also balancing sports, clubs, service activities, social lives—and even healthy eating and sleeping habits. Balance, always elusive, seems to have moved beyond many students’ reach. How to regain it? Consider some guidance from the experts.

Advice from college admissions professionals varies widely, and there are no hard-and-fast rules for how many AP classes any one student should take. But internal research at several Chicagoland high schools has found no increase in college persistence (attending college for five consecutive semesters or more) once a student has taken four to five AP classes in his or her high school career. Instead, the more AP classes a student piles on, the more his or her GPA can begin to slip as the workload becomes unmanageable.

In a 2016 interview with the New York Times, Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions at MIT, shared some valuable counsel. “What I tell students, and my own kids, is that you don’t have to take every advanced class. My high school daughter, for example, is taking advanced math and science courses but chose not to take advanced English and history.” Consider the main areas of study your child hopes to explore, and encourage her to choose courses accordingly. “You should challenge yourself,” Schmill continued. “For some students this might mean taking the most advanced classes, but it also might mean taking the most advanced classes appropriate for that student, and not spreading themselves too thin.”

The website for Harvard’s Office of Admissions notes: “Most of all we look for students who make the most of their opportunities and the resources available to them, and who are likely to continue to do so throughout their lives.” This means opting for a vigorous course load and demonstrating proficiency by taking tests such as AP exams, but it also means leaving room to pursue extracurricular activities—from service projects to outside reading and athletics. 

The Right Stuff

The best advice boils down to this: students should take the most challenging course load they can handle while still doing well academically and not sacrificing a rich life outside of the classroom—one that will demonstrate to colleges who they really are. This means leaving room for clubs, sports, community service activities—and a social life and family time, too. Most importantly, it means not losing the thirst for knowledge and natural curiosity that distinguish life-long learners.

Admissions teams are looking for well-rounded young people who will enhance their school in a variety of ways. This means that they want students who are academically promising and able to handle the work expected of them, yes. But they also want students with interests outside of the classroom: young people interested in belonging to a community, with a demonstrable commitment to making a difference; young people who love to pursue new ideas and who possess a genuine curiosity about the world around them. Don’t let that spark be extinguished by the pressure to take too many AP classes or to score well on a test. 

APEX Right Stuff

Creating and sustaining the balance that feels right is something your teenager will have to own for him- or herself. You can help them find their way toward that balance. But the work to maintain equilibrium? That’s up to them. For parents, it can be dizzying, even scary, to watch your teenager begin their attempt at a high-wire crossing; thrilling to see them take those first wobbly steps off the platform. At APEX, we’ll not only be cheering you on from the stands, but supporting your student from the sidelines. Contact us to learn more about how an APEX tutor can help your family find a healthy balancing act of its own.