What Harvard Thinks of AP Classes

How to Get Into Harvard or Other Top College

Education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught. George Savile, Marquis of Halifax (1633-1695) English statesman and author.

In my haste to publish this post with my kids home and complaining that I went to Moms’ Night Out at preschool instead of attending to them at night, I failed to make a little commentar, so here it is:

Harvard, as most colleges it seems these days, prefers a self actualized applicant. That being said, I would add that that self actualization needs to take place well before age 18 in order to impress.  That is a tall order.  Some, it is fair to say, seem to know EXACTLY who they are, what they want and where they are going just as soon as their little legs give them mobility, but that is unusual.  Most of us, myself included, meander throughout life wondering what we want to be when we grow up.  Is that bad?  Isn’t that a form of intellectual curiosity as well?

My advice with regard to AP class selection is probably to let your child follow their heart.  Let them explore and discover and find the thing that makes their heart sing.  If that is Latin or mathematics or golf, let the chips fall as they may.  I think if a child is allowed to follow their heart, only good can come from that.  And, if in the process, this impresses Harvard or some other “highly selective college” then it is kismet.  But if not, there is always grad school!


In this Harvard Education Letter interview by Lucy Hood, astronomy professor Philip Sadler shares some insights from a new book he co-edited, AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program (Harvard Education Press, 2010):
• Benefits from taking AP courses – Sadler says these include getting turned on to a particular field, delving more deeply into subject matter, getting into the college of one’s choice, and getting financial aid or scholarships, getting a leg up on introductory college courses, and using AP calculus to do better in college science courses.
• The myth that taking AP courses is enough – Sadler says that students who take science AP courses and fail the AP exams don’t do any better in college science courses than those who haven’t taken AP courses. For students who aren’t going to succeed in AP courses, it makes more sense to take advanced courses. In addition, this would save their high schools valuable resources since AP courses are expensive to run (small classes, highly qualified teachers, specialized lab equipment).
• Alternatives to AP – Some elite public and private schools are replacing AP courses with second-year courses involving in-depth study of certain topics because they think they can do a better job covering advanced material than following AP curriculums. And some high schools are teaming up with nearby colleges and community colleges that allow students to take introductory college courses for full credit.
• Drawbacks of AP – Sadler says that some high-school students take an AP course and then never take a college course in that area. While high-school teachers can do a good job teaching the fundamentals, Sadler believes that they’re usually less aware of the latest research and are less likely to entice students in continuing in the field than a college professor. He also thinks students should get college credit only for scoring 4 or 5 on an AP exam.
• The myth of early graduation – Sadler says that students who take AP courses in high school rarely go through college in three years, so there’s little economic advantage.
• Advice for high-school principals – Sadler says these are the key points for administrators to bear in mind:
–  Make sure your AP courses are high-quality – well-prepared teachers who have gone through professional development in AP and have the resources to teach the course.
–  Have a mechanism to ensure that students are prepared to take each AP course.
–  Require that all students who enroll in an AP course take the AP exam.
–  Monitor AP exam results. “That’s the only way an administrator is going to know whether the course is successful or not,” says Sadler. “The grade that the teacher gives to students is not highly correlated with the AP exam score. The grades that teachers give are not a proxy or a replacement for AP exam scores.”

“Putting AP to the Test: New Research Assesses the Advanced Placement Program” – An interview with Philip Sadler by Lucy Hood in the Harvard Education Letter, May/June 2010 (Vol. 26, #3, p. 4-5) http://www.hepg.org/hel/article/466

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Jennifer

    I teach middle school, but I know several high school AP science teachers. I think another point that needs to be considered is the students purpose for taking AP classes. The neighborhood I work in has high poverty statistics…we encourage students to take AP courses because of their rigor, so that kids can begin to see what college may be like and know they are capable. Many kids are the first ones in their family to attend college…they’re not going to Harvard but if they get a bit of confidence from AP and a credit or two they are way ahead of their peers and in many cases their parents.

  2. Excellent Blog! As an AP teacher, Many times It becomes quite difficult to explain the myths, benefits and alternatives of AP test. Now I will refer this blog in front of the parents who comes to me with such a questions. Thanks for sharing!
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