Sunday, January 23, 2011

Advanced Placement courses move from nice add-on to norm on college resumes

By LIAM MIGDAIL-SMITH | The Patriot-News
January 3, 2011

Take the SATs? Check.

Count up activities and community service? Check.

Have three or four college courses already under your belt?

For students hoping to get accepted at higher-end colleges, taking a few Advanced Placement courses — accelerated high school classes that count for college credit depending on how students score on a standardized test — is no longer a nice add-on to college resumes. It’s the norm.

“It’s getting to the point when you don’t see AP courses on a student’s resume, you wonder why,” said Bill Brown, vice president of enrollment at Lebanon Valley College in Annville Township.

Nationally, the Advanced Placement program has grown exponentially since it was introduced in the 1950s.

The number of U.S. students taking AP exams jumped about 50 percent in the last five years, from 1.2 million to 1.8 million, according to the College Board, the agency that oversees AP programs and other standardized testing such as the SATs.

On average, students have access to eight or nine of the 34 AP courses offered by the College Board. They range from calculus to art history.

Several midstate schools are nationally recognized for being far ahead of the pack. Cumberland Valley High School leads with 27 course offerings. That’s more than double the 13 courses the school had in 2005.

Hershey High School offers 21 courses, and West Shore School District’s two high schools each offer 17. Camp Hill High School offers 10, and about half of its students are enrolled in AP courses.

About half of college-bound students take an AP course, said Trevor Packer of the College Board.

“It is very much the norm for students going to selective or highly selective institutions to have taken at least one college-level course,” Packer said.

John Chopka, vice president of enrollment at Messiah College in Upper Allen Township, said AP courses on a resume show a drive to succeed that can be hard to determine from college essays or other parts of an application.

“There’s just a little extra dose of motivation that comes with deciding to take an AP course,” he said.

But can there be too much?

Parents expressed concern at a November Cumberland Valley School Board meeting that the district encouraging AP courses even for freshmen could be stressful for students. The district was looking to cut an honors freshman social studies course so students would be more inclined to take the AP equivalent. There would be an advanced course beyond the college prep track, but it wouldn’t have an honors weight.

Administrators responded to parents’ worries at the meeting by saying that if students are motivated to take the honors course, why not take it a step further with AP?

“The demand of an AP class is similar to a 100-level college class,” said parent Nancy McKinley of Hampden Township. “Developmentally, ninth- and 10th-graders are in a very different place, and it can be very stressful for them.”

McKinley, whose daughter is taking the freshman AP social studies course, said she’s thrilled with the school’s AP program but wants to see other good options for those who aren’t ready to tackle the college-level work.

Kim Clements, a guidance counselor at Cumberland Valley, said most AP courses are offered in the junior and senior years. The honors courses the first two years are designed to prepare students to go into them.

There are students who can take only AP courses, but most of us are not that superhuman, Clements said. It’s important for students to balance their schedules to be rigorous while keeping in mind that college-level courses come with a college-level workload, she said.

“You also don’t want a student to be a basket case of nerves because they’ve overdone it,” Clements said.

The increase in AP programs has brought with it an increase in students overloading and having stress-related issues, she said.

Clements tells her students to home in on their passions. Students should take AP courses in which they’re interested and excel, she said. And when there’s a student doing well in less-difficult courses, she’ll often encourage him to challenge himself and make the jump to AP.

Students say they are happy about AP options but add the classes could be difficult.

“It’s good the school’s really pushing us to take them,” said Cumberland Valley junior Katie Kaplewicz, 16, of Hampden Township. “But sometimes kids take them because they feel they have to, and they don’t really belong in the class.”

Kaplewicz is taking AP English and psychology courses. Her classmate, junior Alison Hellman, said the classes are a few notches above the honors classes she’s taken.

“You definitely have to put more time into the courses,” said Hellman, 17, of Hampden Township.

AP courses carry weight over honors classes on applications because they’re standardized across the board, said Dan Tredinnick, a spokesman for the Derry Township School District. College admissions officers know what’s in an AP course because it’s set by the College Board, versus an honors course that varies from school to school.

“They know they’re looking at apples to apples when they’re comparing different students from different schools,” Tredinnick said.

College admissions officers agree. But they look at the rigor of a student’s schedule as a whole, they added, so it’s fine to have a mix of AP and honors classes.

“I’d rather see a student take a balanced curriculum with some AP courses,” said Brown of Lebanon Valley College.

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