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How Too Many APs Makes it Harder to Get In


Listen to understand how to choose a better strategy than taking as many advanced classes as possible.


Although everywhere you turn, everyone talks about how important academic rigor is, there is more to the story.
AP, IBDP, or A-level classes are unquestionably valuable. And yet, sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.
This is certainly one of those times.

Rather than taking a class load that pushes you to the edge of sanity, remember why you want to demonstrate academic rigor, and don't forget the significance of the rest of your application.

Don't exclude yourself from consideration from the schools you want to get into..



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Part 1:

Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

Yes, it's true, taking more APS can hurt your chances of getting in just as much as they might help your chances of getting into your dream college. I recognize that this is an extraordinary claim. This goes against what you've probably heard from your college counselors, from your teachers, from your peers, from the Facebook groups where you read about other students who did so much and worked so hard but got rejected anyway.

And the hysteria that follows when all of the messaging centers around the same thing take the hardest classes possible and get great grades in those classes, then do well on your tests, demonstrate leadership, and have some kind of wow factor. I've talked about that advice that I just summarized many times on this podcast, and you can hear about why that advice only pulls out kernels of truth and really misses the main points in several of my previous podcasts. Today I'm going to get even more specific, and I recognize this is an extraordinary claim, that too many APS hurts your chances, makes it harder to get in instead of helping your chances.

But it is clear that it does for a few different reasons. Now, to clarify some of the confusion, first and foremost, let's understand why AP classes are actually very important and why we should take some or even many of them, and how much they can help out and why and where they help out. So, first of all, many of the top most selective schools in the country, ivy League schools, and anything, I would say top 50, even probably beyond that.

Now, all of these schools do say very explicitly that they care about the level of rigor in your high school. And the way that they explain this is quite clear. As you are choosing your classes to take through high school, don't just choose the classes that are easy as so that you can slip through and brag about your high GPA.

All of that is somewhat important. In fact, it's very important. The rigor, of coursework, for most selective colleges is extremely important.

And to just put this in perspective, the percentage of each freshman class, if you look at your favorite colleges, any of these more selective colleges, you look at the common data set, look at section C, and you can see most of them provide this data. You can see what percentage of the students who were just admitted into the freshman class were in the top 10% of their own high school classes, their various classes. And most of the time that number is going to be around a shockingly high number of about 95%.

Sometimes it's a little bit lower. It's rarely higher than that. Maybe it's up to 96% or something like that.

But you can tell. If you are not one of the students who ranks in the top 10% of your high school, you don't have a great chance of getting into the most selective colleges. And yeah, that is no surprise, right? We all kind of understand that colleges are academic institutions, and they care about your ability to perform well in that rigorous setting.

When you get to college, they're going to be rigorous classes. And I want to be clear that AP classes are indeed more rigorous than regular classes, than honors classes, than dual enrollment classes. And there are even two kinds of classes that are even more rigorous than the AP classes.

And I'm talking about the IBDP. The international baccalaureate diploma program. The IBDP is more rigorous than AP and also A level courses, which is generally not common in the United States.

These are international schools or British schools, because the A level curriculum is a British curriculum. I have taught all three. I've taught AP.

I've taught IBDP, and I've taught a level. AP is less rigorous than the IBDP, which is less rigorous than A level. But still, AP classes are quite rigorous, much more rigorous than others.

And when colleges ask you to show rigor, it's important that you take classes like AP classes or IBDP classes or A level classes. If you're in a school that offers those, you should take some of these classes, and you should work hard and do as well as you can. And before we get to the reason why too many AP classes might be making it harder for you to get in, I do also want to emphasize two more points.

And the first is that ambition should be celebrated, not discouraged. If you want to be ambitious, I support you. But I do want you to listen carefully to the rest of this podcast, because you might want to consider more than just demonstrating ambition.

The last thing I want to say is that some of you love studying, some of you love taking more classes, and your idea of fun is to have more homework and to study more classes. That's totally fine. If that's you, go for it.

It's not a great strategy for college admissions, which you might understand a little bit better by the end of this podcast. Certainly you can understand that by listening to previous podcasts when I've talked about it. But if you love this, you should go for it, right? High school is not just about preparing for college.

So if you love taking as many rigorous classes as possible, and that's truly what you really enjoy, go for it. Okay? Don't let me slow you down, but for most teenagers, most teens take lots of AP or IB or A level classes, not because they love them so much, but because they want to be more competitive for college admissions. And this choice comes from the myth that colleges are looking for the smartest students, or they were looking for the hardest working students, or they're looking for the most qualified students, right? Whatever that might mean.

And again, I have spoken at length in previous podcast episodes about why those are not reflective of reality. I've talked about President Drew Faust at Harvard and her comments around how many valedictorians need to be rejected and how many students who have lower test scores and lower grade point averages get in above these valedictorians. So I've talked about this many times before, and I don't want to spend more time on that in this episode.

You can listen to previous episodes to find more about that, but it's important that you know so you can understand the rest of what we talk about today, that it is a myth that colleges are simply looking for the most qualified, that they're simply looking for the smartest, or they're looking for the hardest working. And every year around April and May, we see Facebook communities for one, explode with stories about how insane it is that the valedictorian from such and such school got a 1540 Sat and a 4.7 GPA, but was rejected from every school that she applied to.

And rather than questioning these myths, so many people in these communities buckle down to say, well, if this type of student didn't work hard enough, wasn't smart enough, wasn't qualified enough, then what hope do I possibly have? Or does my teenager possibly have to get in, right? What hope do the rest of us have? Rather than questioning the myths, they just buckle down and use that as evidence that the college admissions system is broken. But actually, the question is a good one. What hope do we have? A lot of hope, it turns out.

So what are the admissions teams looking for? Actually, they're happy to share. Above all, they want to find a rich, diverse class of people who will work together and as an ecosystem be stronger than the sum of its parts. How do we define stronger than the sum of its parts? Well, it is good to understand a little bit more about what colleges value.

Colleges want to be prestigious. They want graduates who go on and change the world. I believe that anyone who has a degree from Harvard can tell you that eight US.

Presidents came through Harvard. Why? My goodness. We were told that so many times in different ways throughout our time earning our degrees, and I imagine that other schools do the same thing.

We also heard about Supreme Court nominees and we heard about Nobel Prize winners and all kinds of amazing people. Why did we keep hearing about this? Because these people who went out and made the world a better place, that worked so hard and changed the world, these people are important to Harvard, and they're important to all of the different schools that they come from. Every school wants to somehow figure out which high school students today are going to go through their college, graduate, and then become the kinds of people who will really change the world, who will really make the world a better place.

They also colleges, in addition to this level of prestige, they also want money. Who's going to be successful, who's going to graduate, go out and make a lot of money, and then donate it back to the college. That's an important consideration for them to think about.

And whether they admit it or not, colleges do want a high ranking. They want to be ranked highly. And this is something that they've begrudgingly admitted over the last, I would say more than a decade.

At first, these rankings were totally meaningless. And perhaps sometime I'll do a podcast just about how awful the rankings are. In so many ways, they really, really distort kind of this entire process of how we should choose a college and what makes a college a good fit for us.

But regardless, at first when these rankings came out, college presidents ignored them. They even made fun of them. But no more.

That has not been the case in a long, long time. Colleges know that the higher they're ranked, the more applications they're going to get. The more applications they get, the higher caliber of student pool they get to choose from, and they're going to be more likely to find these people who will go out and change the world, right? So they do want to be highly ranked.

That's really important. The other thing that colleges really want to figure out is how do we create this happy, successful class, this rich, diverse class that we talked about? How do we put it together in a way that makes sure that everyone is happy and everyone is successful? So they care about your character. They care about your core values.

And each college is going to have its own institutional priorities. So this is where they need to figure out, do they need a tuba player this year? Do they need, I don't know, a football player that plays a certain position? Or do they need a couple of new people on the crew team? Whatever those institutional priorities are that plays a role into how they construct that class of students. But ultimately, what they're trying to figure out is which of these students are going to take the greatest advantage of the amazing resources that exist on campus and then go out and make the world a better place when they finish college.

Colleges do want to find students who can handle the academic rigor of their colleges that will be successful at college. And so APS do fit because colleges are academic institutions. Colleges want to increase their rankings.

Colleges want to find students who can handle the rigor. So it's important to take AP classes or IB or A level classes. It's important to take these harder classes.

If they're available to you, and it's important to do well. But when colleges understand that there's a very low correlation between the grades earned in high school and success later on after college, in other words, the kinds of people who start businesses and then hire straight A students, those students are often not the straight A students. The colleges understand that there's a low correlation between success academically at getting good grades in high school and then success after college is finished.

And if there's a low correlation there, then how do we find the people who are going to go out and change the world? Not only are we not looking for a whole bunch of people who are the smartest or the most qualified or the hardest working, because that's not going to create a rich, diverse class of students, but also we know that a lot of the people who just have their heads stuck in a book are going to end up being professors. Right? If you're one of those people who just loves researching and studying and taking harder and harder classes, and it's just a joy to you, that's your idea of fun, you're going to love researching the rest of your life, and you should be a professor. And colleges want a few of those people, right? They want a few of you.

The problem is that there are so many others who have heard that they need to show how rigorous they are, how hardworking they are, how smart, how qualified they are. And so all around us, we hear people saying, take more APS, take more rigorous classes. More, more, more, more.

And the idea here is that if you take twelve APS and someone else only takes nine, then you have an advantage. But that is not what the admissions officers say. Of course, I can't speak for all 4000 universities in the United States.

There may be a school out there who literally says, we just line everyone up based on how many AP classes they took, and we accept the students who took the most AP classes. But I've never heard of this college. I haven't found it.

And I doubt you'll find it either. I don't think it exists. Because colleges know better, right? You do need to take some AP classes.

You do need to show some rigor, but you don't need to take as many as possible. Why? Because you are giving up the opportunity to have time to be curious. You're giving up the opportunity to have time to go pursue your nonacademic interests.

You're giving up the opportunity to make yourself fascinating. And when push comes to shove and there are 40,000 or 50 or 60,000 applications, and all of them show outstanding rigor and high test scores and demonstrated leadership and wow factor, how do you make yourself interesting? How do you make yourself stand out? I promise you, it is not by taking an extra AP class. So next week in our next podcast, I'm going to do a part two, and we'll talk about how to cut back on your APS and how to know how many is the right amount.

Because ultimately, your schedule, your academic schedule, is going to empower or limit your ability to go pursue things that actually make you interesting, that actually help you stand out. If you don't have time to figure out your core values, then how can you communicate to the admissions officer where you fit into that rich, diverse class of students? And if you can't describe it to the Admissions officer, how could you possibly expect them to connect the dots on your behalf and figure it out for you? They're exhausted. Their brains are frazzled after reading just countless essays.

The last thing you want to do is confuse your admissions Officer or ask them to connect the dots for you. You need to take the time, and you need to have the time available to take that time right? And that can only happen if you're taking a reasonable academic course. Load in part two, we'll talk about how to make that happen.

Part 2:

Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy podcast, equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back. In my previous episode, talked about why taking too many AP classes can actually hurt your chances rather than help your chances of getting into a highly selective college.

And today we're going to talk about how to take less AP classes and how you should think about your class schedule. If you haven't listened to last week's episode, you'll probably want to pause the episode here today and listen to last week's first so that you understand kind of the why. Why is there such an opportunity cost associated with taking too many APS or IB or A level classes? I talk about this all in that last episode.

You need to understand that there is an opportunity cost to every decision that you make. And when you choose to take extra AP classes or extra highly rigorous classes, you're also choosing not to do some other things. And those other things happen to be more valuable once you've taken enough AP classes, right? Like, taking enough AP classes is important because that tells the admissions officers that you can handle the rigor of their college classes.

These highly selective colleges, for the most part, have very rigorous classes, and they want to make sure that you're going to do well, that you're going to be successful in college. So it's important to take some rigorous classes. But how many? How do you choose? How do you know when you've done enough? And how do you know when there's no reason to take on extra AP classes or IB or A level or whatever, and you can just do your own thing? There are many, many, many ways to approach this.

And I need to say, first of all, I am going to have to simplify this message. I'm going to have to simplify it because I cannot look into every single individual situation and do a podcast that describes every situation and how you should consider each of the choices that you make. But I can give you some general ideas that I hope will help you make the right choice for you.

And to begin, I want to share a story that I've actually shared once before. It's about when I was in college, and I had a lot of friends that were from massive cities in Asia, cities like Beijing and Shanghai, or Seoul, Korea. And so I had a group of friends, and I went out with them to go camping once.

I grew up in Montana, for those of you who don't know. And Montana has more cows than people. I spent a lot of time camping, a lot of time making fires.

And it's second nature for me. It's really easy to know how to start a fire. But these people who came out with me, and we decided to go camping together.

They had never started a fire on their own, and so they looked up online how to do it and they saw all the different details. They brought everything that they needed so they could start the fire. And I was off playing, I don't know, with a football or a Frisbee or kicking a soccer ball or something, somewhere off in the distance, while a group of two or three people put together the fire.

And after they had gone through the entire book of matches, there were only three matches left when I got back. So someone decided that they should stop doing what they'd been doing, because literally in three matches, there would be no ability to start fire anymore. And someone went and got me.

They knew that I had grown up in America and the chances were good that I could start fires. Or maybe some of them knew that I'd been in Montana, I don't know. But they came to get me.

And when I came back, it was really clear why they couldn't start the fire. They had all the pieces that they needed. They had the little kindling.

They had the smaller pieces, like ripped up pieces of newspaper. They even had fire starter, like those really thin vines and grasses and things that you can easily start on fire. But what happened is they put the fire starter down and then they put the shredded newspaper right on top of that, and then they put the small twigs on top of that and the bigger twigs on top of that, and then the good sized sticks on top of that, and then the logs on top of that.

And there was no space between all of these things. So I came back. There's literally only three matches left.

Some people are really scared that they're not going to get dinner, that we're going to have to abandon our weekend plans. And I chuckled and of course, took the big logs completely off, took the big sticks completely off and began to remove all of these pieces so that we could create space in between the combustibles. And once we had enough space in between the combustibles, then I made sure that we put the fire starter in a way that it would light the shredded newspaper in a way that that would light the smaller twigs and the bigger twigs and so on.

And of course, one match is all you need if everything is set up correctly and there's plenty of space for oxygen in between the combustibles. And that's all it took. We did one match.

We started the fire. Everyone cheered, and I was a hero. It was actually quite funny.

But the message is really applicable to this idea of APS. How do teenagers decide how many AP classes to take? Too often. It's exactly like my friends from these massive cities of more than 10 million people who had never been camping, and then they're told to go figure out how to start their own campfire.

Well, in my opinion, the campfire represents your internal flame, your passion, your values, the things that really bring you to life. And when we fill our day with so many activities that we have no space between the activities, it's just like putting all the logs together in a way that there's no oxygen between the combustibles. We need to have space between those things so that the fire can burn, that we can ignite and then burn.

And what most often happens, in my experience, having taught all of these subjects, I've taught AP, I've taught IB, I've taught regular classes, I've taught A level classes, even the British curriculum. After seeing so many students go through this, here's what I've observed, what students generally do. If they're ambitious and they want to get into a selective college, they're going to ask the question, how many AP classes can I handle? And that's what they do.

So if you think I can handle three AP classes next year, then that's what you take. If you think you can handle four, you do four or 5566. And the reality is you don't really think, how many can I handle? You're actually thinking, if I were always healthy and motivated and felt truly inspired to stay focused on my classes and never had any conflicts, how many in this perfect scenario, how many classes could I handle? And really, that's how we're making our choices.

And then what do we do? We share this excitement with our peers. And you hear about Sally down in the other homeroom who actually took six APS, and eventually you start feeling like, man, I'm only taking four. Everyone else is taking more.

And so you kind of get into this vortex of energy that says you need to think about how much you could possibly handle, and then that's how many classes you take. Then it gets even worse because there are other classes that are not AP, not required classes, and some of them take a ton of time. And so maybe you're in dance, or for some people that might be like the journalism class if you're on the yearbook team, or it might be some kind of design class or whatever, but there are all kinds of classes that are not required, that are not historically considered extremely rigorous, but they are extremely time consuming.

And sometimes you have people who say, well, I know I'm supposed to do the things that I'm passionate about because I want to show passion, and I know I need to show rigor. So I'm going to take this really time consuming class that I'm actually interested in, and I'm going to take as many AP classes as I can. Here's how I think you should approach it.

Figure out what you think you could handle, what you think is reasonable for you, and then at the very least, you want to subtract one AP from that number. All right? And I recommend you subtract the scariest one. Which one of those is just well known at the school for being a real time suck or being really scary, really requiring a lot of effort? That's the one I would say you should drop.

Of course, if you love that subject and you're up for it, go for it, right? But take the one that's scariest to you and drop that one. So if you think you can handle four, the most you should consider is actually three. Then you need to look at your other classes that are not AP classes, that are not required classes, and see if there's another time suck in there.

And as much as possible, you should eliminate one of those time sucks and replace it with an easy A or a study hall. That's a really good idea. Extra study time during the school day is a great idea.

And here's the mindset that I think you should have instead of, what could I possibly handle if I stay healthy and motivated the entire year? Right? How many AP classes could I handle? In a perfect scenario, instead of thinking along those lines, I want you to change your approach. Change your approach. So you say, what's the appropriate amount of classes for me so that I can finish all of my schoolwork by dinner time every weekday and at a half day either Saturday or Sunday? So a half day on the weekend, plus up until dinner time weekdays.

And what is going to happen to you instead of kind of pushing that homework off until nighttime when you have no more choices? And then that homework goes later and later and later, and now you're sleep deprived. You wake up the next day feeling groggy. Your learning centers are muted.

We've talked about sleep a couple of times before on this podcast, but the Sleep Science Center out at UCLA and Stanford, the just phenomenal research that they've done there, we know for sure that when you're sleep deprived, you are functioning as if you are intoxicated, right? And so your learning centers are muted. It's impossible to transfer information from short term memory to long term memory. So it takes you longer to learn, and you're not remembering it.

And you're not drawing the connections that you need to make when you're sleep deprived. So if you're studying really, really late at night so that you get less sleep, and then you wake up early in the morning, and then you kind of drag your body to each class throughout the school day, but you're barely awake or not even awake sometimes you literally fall asleep during class. Guess what? You're not going to do very well, and you're not going to be happy.

And you certainly don't have space between the combustibles for the passion and the fire that is your soul. Like the batteries, your internal batteries need to be recharged regularly, and you need to get enough sleep. And so too many AP classes is really going to hurt you there.

I talked about in the previous podcast the opportunity cost of taking so many AP or higher level classes IB or A level whatever it is, taking so many of these more rigorous classes because you don't have time to be curious. You don't have time to make yourself fascinating, and you don't have time to find your core values, which means that you're going to have a very difficult time communicating to your admissions officers how you are going to fit into that rich, diverse class of students that they're trying to put together. And if you can't tell them clearly, please do not expect them to connect the dots on your application and figure out for you what your core values are and how you might fit into their class, that's a losing strategy.

But we lose in more ways than just that when your activities are so compressed because you've taken too many AP classes. Because you think that admissions officers are only looking for the hardest working or the smartest or the most qualified based on AP classes. So you think more is better then you are not allowing space in between these combustibles for you to recharge your batteries.

You're not allowing the fire to burn. You can't even get it ignited. And if you can, then it quickly puts itself out.

And you've seen what happens when that fire goes out, right? You disengage from class. Everything is a drudgery. And now all you can do is just wish that you could spend five more minutes on TikTok or on Instagram because life is so miserable.

There's nothing enjoyable about class, after class, after class, too much hard work, so much pressure to do well in everything. And so you give up on sleep, you give up on friends and fun, and all you want to do is escape into social media or video games or whatever else. That is not a way to live your life, and that's not a good way to get into a great college.

Instead, be smarter about this. Don't take on the number of AP classes that you think you can handle. Don't forget that your version of future me is this super version of yourself, right? The you, if you were a superhero, future you struggles with the exact same things that present day you struggles with, right? So you're not going to be more motivated, you're not going to be sick less often, you're not going to have any of those advantages that in your mind, you think you're going to have as you forecast into the future, how you're going to perform.

Decide with a realistic outlook what you can handle, and then subtract at least one AP from that. Then look at your other classes and see if you can replace a time suck with an easy A or with study hall. And by doing that now, you put yourself in a position to finish up your schoolwork by dinner time every single weekday, plus a half day on the weekends.

And that extra time that you spend from dinner time until bedtime and one and a half days on the weekends should be spent. This is time that should be spent pursuing your interests, pursuing the things that recharge your batteries, becoming really, truly fascinating, finding your core values, finding a way to make your community a better place. All of those things can only happen if you take a reasonable academic workload.

Don't buy into the myth that the hardest working or the smartest gets in. It's simply not true. Listen to the admissions officers who have said it as clearly as possible.

They're looking for a rich, diverse class of students. More APS. Some APS are critical, but more APS are not any better than some.

You need to show some rigor. And like we said in the previous podcast, please go back and listen to that. It is important that you perform well in school and listen to kind of the beginning where we talk about you need to be basically in the top 10% of your high school class.

You need to have some elements of rigor to show that you meet those needs. But once you've met them, focus on the other elements. Focus on being the best version of you.

And that can only happen if you have space between those activities. For you to pursue your interests, your curiosities, for you to become fascinating, for you to find your core values, and then go make your world a better place because of you, because of your core values, because you exist. That is a winning strategy.

Both because you're motivated, you get enough sleep so you're not sleep deprived. You can study effectively, but then you can also go pursue the things that make you the best of who you might be, right? You can be curious. You can explore, you can do amazing things, and you can impact your community for the better.

That is a winning strategy.