Dear Roadie, My Son Struggles in AP Courses. Is The Stress Worth It for College?

Teen slumped in front of a laptop computer with his hand in his hair looking frustrated.

Dear Roadie, My Son Struggles in AP Courses. Is The Stress Worth It for College?

Published May 25, 2024

Teen slumped in front of a laptop computer with his hand in his hair looking frustrated.

Dear Roadie,

My son wants to load up on AP classes his senior year because he thinks it will impress colleges, but I think it’s too much. He hasn’t passed two of the AP tests he’s taken already, which means no college credit, and he’s struggled to keep up with the coursework on most of them. Still, everybody tells us that’s what colleges look for and that the more AP classes, the better. Is it worth it if he isn’t getting credit and he’s stressed out all the time? I feel like he should be enjoying his high school years and participating in fun activities, instead of spending so much time studying and stressing.
— To AP or Not to AP

Dear To AP or Not to AP, 

I applaud you for recognizing your child is struggling with Advanced Placement, or AP, classes. Many parents have questions about these classes. They sound like a great idea, especially if the student can pass the end-of-year exam with a score high enough to earn college credit, but how beneficial are they, really, for college admissions? And is it worth it if they cause so much stress it impacts your child’s mental health? 

Let’s start with the facts about AP classes. Only 22 percent of U.S. public high school grads in 2023 earned a score of 3 or higher on at least 1 exam, the minimum required to earn college credit. Some universities require at least a 4, while many colleges don’t accept AP credits at all. Unless you know you’ll be applying to a school that accepts the same AP credits you’re planning to earn, you can’t assume that these classes will save you time or money, but they most definitely may cause you stress.

It sounds like your son is struggling to keep up with at least some of his AP classes. That’s a sign that he may not have been ready for them. These classes are designed to be challenging, but not so challenging that a student simply can’t keep up and is completely stressed out about it. Think about it: No college student should feel that way about their courses, let alone a high school student. 

I think 1 AP class per year of high school is a lot, but many students take far more than that. I also think most students aren’t ready for college-level courses as early as freshman or even sophomore year of high school, but many schools push them. For those students who choose to stick with so-called “regular classes,” their decision sometimes paves the way for unnecessary feelings of guilt and inferiority when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking grade-level classes. 

It bears noting that there are a great many wonderful colleges and universities that accept students who did not take any advanced classes in high school. But if you’re applying to a competitive school, you’re right to believe it’s practically required as the vast majority of applicants have taken college-level classes by the time they apply.

Knowing what we know about the state of your son’s generation’s mental health, I don’t think it’s worth taking AP classes if a student is likely to struggle through it and not likely to pass the end-of-year exam anyway. 

For some students, a better way to show college readiness is to take honors or dual enrollment classes. Both can impact your GPA if graded on a weighted system and both tell colleges you’re ready to succeed beyond high school. Unlike AP classes, you only need to pass the class to earn dual enrollment credit in most cases. But the format is different. A student either attends in-person classes two or three days per week at a local college, or online, and they’re taught by college professors. For some students (perhaps yours), this may work better for them.

Your son is lucky to have the option to take so many AP classes (many students don’t), but it’s important to understand the role that AP classes play and don’t play in college admissions, not to mention the toll they seem to be taking on your son’s mental health. AP exam scores aren’t likely to be the deciding factor in anyone’s college applications. Is it worth it if the student is stressed out all the time? I don’t think so.

Teaching our children not to be afraid to challenge themselves is a worthy endeavor, but it’s also imperative that they be shown how to recognize the signs of burnout. What good is attending a name school if your mental health and self-worth take a nose dive?

Keep in mind that not every college considers a high score on an AP exam synonymous with college readiness. Some think they focus too heavily on memorizing facts rather than understanding concepts, and that a student who skips an introductory college class thanks to a high AP score may not be ready for more advanced coursework. 

I think your son should consider what he wants his life to look like both now and later and include his state of mind in the thought process. Does he want to have time to enjoy memorable moments with friends and participate in activities he loves? He’s going to have to make time for that. Finding balance is closely tied to our sense of joy and satisfaction with life. 

The sooner he figures that out, the better. It’s more likely to serve him than mastering college-level physics while in the eleventh grade.

Have a perplexing college question? Email Dear Roadie for advice at dearroadie@road2college.com

_______

Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Which Is Better? AP or Dual Enrollment?

How to Get Into College Without Test Scores and Only One AP

Dear Roadie: Should I Tell My Daughter Not to Bother Applying to Unaffordable Dream Schools?

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