An AP Nightmare

Is there a downside to Advanced Placement classes?

I’m asking this question because many teenagers and their parents seem to believe that you can’t get into a good college without taking a killer load of AP classes. Taking three or four (or more!) AP classes in a semester can suck all the fun out of high school, but many kids and parents feel it’s necessary.

I have written in the past about the slavish worship of all things AP and those coveted weighted grades:

Are AP Classes Worth It?

Today, however, I’m sharing the experience of a friend of mine whose son took tons of AP classes and who also excelled on the AP tests.

My friend’s son, let’s call him Patrick, will be a freshman at University of California, Santa Barbara, and he’s seriously considering becoming a physics major. Physics is a brutal major, but UCSB is making it even harder for this kid.

Here’s the problem:  Patrick received high marks in two AP exams for calculus, as well as the AP exam for physics. He thought taking these hard classes would prepare him for college-level science and math classes, as well as boost his GPA, but it might have backfired on him.

Getting In Over Your Head


Because UCSB saw Patrick’s great AP test results in calculus and physics and has decided that he needs to start with more advanced classes. UCSB is requiring Taylor to begin his freshmen year by taking the course on differential equations. Now this won’t mean much to most people, but basically the university is requiring Taylor to leapfrog past Calculus I, Calculus II and Calculus III. Taylor has to take the class that many physics and math majors won’t tackle until the second semester of their sophomore year.

The university is also making the 18-year-old skip the introductory physics class and plunge into a more difficult one.

I can understand why this state university is making Patrick take classes that he worries he isn’t prepared to handle. The university has too many students and it’s four-year graduation rate isn’t all that hot. Only 52.1% graduate in four years. If you make students, who do well in AP classes, move along at a faster clip, it will free up more slots.

So next time you think that there is no downside to AP classes after high school is over, think about Patrick.

I hope the poor kid survives his first semester.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also write college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch and US News. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Interesting situation. One thing to consider with all the AP taking. This depends on the expected major, if your child knows what they want to study, but taking the AP classes should best be viewed as a way to show rigor on the transcript and to boost a GPA with weighted grades. Everyone knows that! But you should not necessarily use the AP test scores to exempt out of certain college courses. Specifically the ones you’ve mentioned. Never skip Physics I and start with Physics II. Same with classes like Chemistry (for a chem major). The new college student needs a chance to 1) take the class the way that school teaches it and 2) needs a chance to gain some confidence by taking a class with material they have somewhat seen already. Stories of kids going to college with 30+ semester hours gained by exempting classes are scary.

  2. My daughter is taking AP Calculus BC and AP Language & Composition as a Junior. She considered taking AP Psychology but decided against it because she heard that teacher likes to load the kids down with work. She took “regular” Psychology so she could, *gasp*, find out what Psychology is about. She enjoyed the class immensely and learned quite a bit. If she takes Psych again in College, I’m sure she will enjoy the class at that level too.
    When I was in college, I enjoyed my liberal arts classes very much (probably because I was in Engineering major and liked the change of pace). The point I’m trying to make is if kids kill themselves taking so many AP classes, where they try to show how tough they are, I think they will miss out on some great opportunities to TAKE COLLEGE CLASSES IN COLLEGE. Isn’t that why they’re going?

  3. How does Patrick feel about it? I took 7 AP classes in high school and I feel that in no way that was a bad thing. The “poor kid” has chosen an accelerated path and is being pushed to continue on that path. If this is the way the school deals with bright students, pushing them and trusting in them to excel, then kudos!

    Most colleges do not take AP credit at all and for those who hoped they could save on $/credit by taking them – I understand that frustration, but AP courses are an amazing chance for students to test themselves in a protected environment, high school, before entering college, and I see tremendous value in AP classes. I only wish more schools could offer AP classes and assist those students wishing to take the test pay the fee.

  4. UCSD seems to function the same way theresa smith says about Irvine — you’re allowed to “drop” your AP credits and retake the introductory classes, either at the price of forfeiting the credit or taking the courses with no credit given.

    I’m going to be jumping straight into multivariable calc (Math20C) due to AP credit :\ I am one of those kids who wanted to start college “with sophomore status.” It can be a dilemma: Calculus III sounds scary hard, but is it worth taking courses that teach material I’ve already learned?

    1. Rose – Thanks for the scoop on UCSD and AP credits. There is no right way to proceed. As a journalism major, Calculus III sounds crazy hard. I avoided all math classes in college, which helped my GPA soar. My son, who just started college last week, had planned to take Calculus I, but his advisor convinced him to take Calculus II rather than repeat all the Calculus I material.

      Good luck with Calc III.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  5. Our small school has an open door policy of accepting just about anyone who wants AP credit. This shows up with very few if any kids passing the AP tests, because the material cannot be covered at the pace it needs to be. Regional admission advisors know this about our school, so it really doesn’t count for much. I think it’s better to so that you student can take some college classes through PSEOP and handle college.

  6. My daughter took a few AP courses as a high school freshman only to realize she needed to take more as a sophomore+ to increase her GPA and hopefully boost her class rankings to the top 10%. Luckily she did finish in the top 10% of her class, barely, but after many days of study, she didn’t get the required grade for college AP credit when she took the AP college credit test.

    Now that the top 10% rule in Texas has changed to only benefit those in the top 8% coupled with the story about “Patrick” above, I wonder if I’d advise my 14 year old son, who’s equally as bright but not as disciplined as his sister, to stress with such a heavy AP load.

  7. Will UCSB allow him to drop his AP credits thereby granting him the ability to take the intro class? At UC Irvine students are allowed to do just this but they in turn need to be willing to lose the “credits”.