Gates: Don’t fall for ‘AP mania’


Matt Gates, Columnist

May at Northwestern is going to (hopefully) mean the end of jacket weather for good and the beginning of high school friends heading home while we study for midterms. But in high school, May brought many of us a different gift: late nights spent cramming vocabulary words and completing last-minute practice tests. Looking back, most of my friends who went to schools with the Advanced Placement program agree that we all believed the countless hours spent on AP classes and exams would prepare us well for college. In retrospect, I’m not sure they always did.

It makes sense that selective schools want to see students succeed in the most challenging courses available to them. But “challenging” can take on a lot of different meanings. It was challenging to memorize facts and vocabulary for exams in history and biology, and it was challenging to speedily cram as much information as possible into free-response questions on various exams. But tests are not the only challenges people find in their NU courses. I am not saying that AP courses and tests are not sometimes useful or that they should not be considered in college admissions. Instead, I am saying colleges should consider what AP exams test and ensure incoming students know the differences between “college-level” and actual college courses.

Many college courses are far more conceptual than their Advanced Placement counterparts. For instance, I was not alone in finding that preparing for the AP Biology exam required large amounts of rote memorization. Although memorization is a part of many courses, I found my NU genetics and molecular biology class to be far more conceptual, testing my understanding of biological processes, not excessive memorization of names and facts.

College courses in the humanities also greatly differ in how they test students. A three- to four-hour AP exam that includes a multiple-choice section and three essays can only give students time to rush through a rough draft. In contrast, many college courses require hours upon hours of research and editing to create a final product. The essays on AP exams test whether a student can provide a cursory response to a prompt. College essays in contrast require a deeper understanding of a topic. For a free-response question, I remember one of my teachers telling my class, “even if you don’t know that much, just write everything you know and you can still do well.” I would not recommend trying this strategy at NU.

Though many students begin at a higher-level class in college and do well, we all know someone who placed out of an intro class with AP credit and was overwhelmed when they discovered that courses were much harder or at least much different in college than AP classes.

One might think that the “AP mania” in college admissions would make students learn more in high school. The emphasis placed on doing well on AP exams detracted from the learning experience we had in these classes, leaving us sometimes unprepared for college. Time spent becoming familiar with the bizarre computer-automated conversations in then-called AP Spanish Language could have been used building greater oral and aural fluency. Hours spent poring over psychology flashcards could have been spent trying to better understand how psychological research is conducted. AP English classes spent speeding through a short passage and practicing multiple-choice questions could have been spent honing critical reading and thinking skills by having a class discussion about a chapter of a famous work read the night before.

The teachers of my AP courses cannot be blamed for doing their jobs. Schools tend to care about their rankings, and their rankings are often based in part on AP scores.

Likewise, success on AP and other challenging courses makes candidates attractive to colleges and may be part of what prepared us for the classes at NU. The College Board has been making changes in the right direction, shifting the focus of tests such as biology and U.S. history from memorization to conceptual understanding. However, students and admissions committees alike should be aware that success in AP classes does not equate to success in college courses.

Matt Gates is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].