Many guidance counselors and teachers push for as many AP courses as the student can possibly bear, and many parents happily back up this plan, believing that they are securing college admissions for their child. It’s important to understand why that can really hurt them.

When colleges look at your child’s application, they will look first at the unweighted gpa and SAT or ACT scores. That unweighted gpa/ test score combo needs to be in a range of interest to them before they will look at the rest of the details – so if the gpa has dropped too low as a result of taking too many incredibly hard classes, colleges will never see what the classes were and say “oh, well that’s ok then, they took very hard classes”. They will just move on to the next application. Any course a student gets a C in does more damage to their gpa than the class is worth. Colleges aren’t interested in knowing how many hard classes your child can take and scrape by in – they would rather see how many they can handle effectively while keeping their entire gpa, and the rest of their activities, in balance. Even if they look at the details of your child’s transcript, it still hurts them to have many AP classes and a less than notable gpa. They will assume one of two things is true – that your child is being madly pushed along by you and will collapse when trying to function independently at college, or that your child madly pushes themselves valuing class status over realism and will sign up for the hardest possible courses in college even if they cannot handle them. What they want is a student who is goal-oriented but has a realistic understanding of their abilities, limits and time restraints – a student who will be able to make consistent practical choices that allow for a smooth college experience and a timely graduation.

My general guideline is that they should not take more than 1 as a sophomore and not more than 2 as a junior, unless they are truly both naturally skilled and highly motivated in all the AP subjects they will be taking. Senior year APs are the most over-rated of all; colleges won’t have a final grade or an AP score while looking at an application, so it cannot possibly help with admissions. The ONLY reason to ever take a senior AP class is because you very realistically expect your child to earn college credit with the scores, without it taking up so much energy that other things slide, and they have such a great gpa that a small tumble won’t hurt them if the class gets rougher than anticipated.

Here are some warning signs to watch for. If the grade slips to a B in a math or science AP, or a C in any other AP, get your child whatever help they need to bring up the grade immediately. If they aren’t studying enough but are capable of doing the material, get involved and help make sure that studying happens consistently. If they are studying a lot and it isn’t enough, or have trouble with the material, get them a tutor. Four hours a week with a tutor may help them more than 16 hours of independent studying if they feel lost and it can free up some time for their other classes, activities and relaxation. If their grade is solidly in the A/B range but they feel nervous about the actual exam, get some released versions of their tests from the college board at this link Have them practice during winter break, and then again during spring break. Doing well on the actual test is essential – do not even send AP scores below a 3. Yes, even if they got an A in the class. As a parent you may think sending a low score is okay if it has a letter grade of A to go with it. From the college’s point of view though, an A and a 1 or a 2 means one of a few things – that your kid’s school hands out As like candy (which undermines their entire gpa) or that your kid’s school has very poorly equipped AP teachers (which makes their school look less impressive).

If you live in Maryland (or are considering colleges in Maryland) please feel free to contact me for more information on college admissions and requirements. You can also use this chart to get a good idea what gpa and test scores different MD colleges are looking for.