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Interview: Why APs Matter More Than Ever

01 SEP 2021

For decades, students relied on high test scores and good grades in high school to get over the academic threshold for US universities. But in recent years as the admissions landscape has grown remarkably competitive, along with the elimination of SAT Subject Tests and widespread test-optional policies, AP exams have come into play as a popular way to demonstrate academic rigor.

Advanced Placement (AP) courses and their corresponding exams have become increasingly common among university hopefuls in the years leading up to submitting their applications. AP courses are a set of curricula created by CollegeBoard, the same organizing body that administers the SAT, designed to give students the opportunity to take college-level courses to showcase their academic ability and, depending on the score a student receives on the exam, receive college credit.

In a recent episode from the College Tips series on the Top of the Class podcast, Crimson Education CEO and podcast co-host, Jamie Beaton, talks through the rising popularity of AP exams, how many students need to take to make an impact on their admission results, and examples of students he personally helped on their journeys to Harvard and Stanford by helping them bolster their academic profiles.


Below is an abbreviated transcript of the Top of the Class interview between Jamie and podcast co-host, Alex Cork. The transcript is edited for clarity and to remove vocal filler. Click the following links to download the full episode or stream it on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Alex:

Hey, Jamie, welcome to another episode of College Tips! Always great to be joined by my very knowledgeable co-host. We're here to chat primarily about APs, or Advanced Placement. Our listeners from Australia or anywhere else around the world might not be familiar with APs — am I right in saying that?

Jamie:

Yes! So the folks who made the SAT, the College Board, also make the AP, which stands for the Advanced Placement. And this is primarily popular in the US, but it's really spread to China, Korea, even the UK, and now through Crimson Global Academy, we're seeing kids all over the world taking AP exams.

APs are basically a way of showing what's called college readiness — that you’re prepared to thrive at university. And there's a range of subjects from things like basic calculus, all the way to things like psychology, statistics, US history, and other great subjects. These exams are scored out of five: generally, a four or five is considered to be a good score, and exams are offered each May. And they play a big role in boosting your odds of getting into top schools.

Actually, when I was at Harvard, I was able to skip a year of my degree using what's called advanced standing, and you can use the APs to do just that. It's basically become a very popular tool and academic qualification for ambitious high schoolers all over the world, in the last 12-18 months in particular.

Alex:

So why have the APs taken on more significance in the last 12 months?

Jamie:

There are really two drivers of this. The first is the general kind of competition that is unfolding. With each passing year, the bar is getting a bit higher; so students are taking a few more subjects and they're starting a bit earlier. And that is particularly magnified at the top schools where there have been more and more international students taking a significant number of subjects.

So competition is one factor, but that's more like a gradual, incremental phenomenon. The second factor is recently the SAT Subject Tests got binned — and they were designed to be able to showcase your ability to schools. With those being removed, applicants need an alternative way of signaling their ability in certain subjects. And so the APs have really been a great way of filling that void, alongside other things like the rigorous British A-Levels.

The other kind of functional thing is unlike the IB Diploma, which takes two years and is highly structured, the AP exams can be sat from a pretty young age. They're offered every May and so I see lots of students taking them over three or four years, as opposed to all in one year — and that flexibility is quite attractive.

Additionally, there's been this growing trend towards computer science and the technology industry, which is a sector that's kind of underserved by traditional high schools. So things like AP Computer Science have become popular extra choices by ambitious kids to level up on a critical skill.

Alex:

And just for students trying to get a grasp of how difficult the APs might be, what’s it like relative to other curriculums?

Jamie:

The AP varies significantly based on the subjects you choose. So for example, AP Psychology and AP Statistics are pretty easy in relative terms. Meanwhile, subjects like AP BC Calculus or AP Physics are very challenging. So on a spectrum, AP BC Calculus, or some of the AP Physics kind of exams are really equivalent to higher level exams — like the IB, or A-Levels — and the associated subjects. That difficult, rigorous AP BC Calculus is probably even harder than A-Level math.

But on the flip side, subjects like A-Level psychology are very doable and lots of students can begin these at a pretty young age, like 13, 14, 15, if they wish to. So I think there is a bit of a spectrum of challenge there.

Alex:

But if a student is doing advanced maths at school, I'm assuming that a lot of what they've already learned at school could then be pretty readily applied to some of the math subjects in the AP curriculum, so they wouldn't necessarily be starting from scratch. Right?

Jamie:

That's right. Typically how students engage with us is that they've been at traditional high schools in Australia or New Zealand or other countries and then they come along to us at Crimson Global Academy, and they can take these extra APs, and they've already learned some of the content from their existing school system. So we help them get through the additional content, help them learn with like minded peers, talented teachers, then prepare them to sit the exam and get the best possible AP result. So it’s very much something which builds on the strengths that you've already established in high school.

In some cases, students will begin a brand new subject. They might take for example, AP Microeconomics or AP Macroeconomics, and students may have never done any economics beforehand. But of course, something like AP BC Calculus builds on the math foundation students have been growing for several years.

Alex:

I was actually just talking to Eunice, who got into Harvard and had done quite a few APs. She had made the decision that in some instances where she got a four, instead of a five, she didn't actually report it to the universities she applied to. So on the admissions side of things, if you get a four, is it optional to let the universities know?

Jamie:

So the rules kind of vary from school to school — some schools do require you to report all grades, others are more flexible. It's important to check, because some of the schools can be strict about this criteria, so you wouldn't want to not report something when you had to for a certain school, that can put you in a bit of trouble.

As far as what you just mentioned, it’s broadly correct, that you basically want to be shooting for fives in the AP. And a five is not 100% — a five is just enough of the exam correct, so a significant portion of students do land fives in their APs. And I often see kids re-sitting a four. You definitely don't want to have any ones, twos or threes; but it's quite hard to score one, two or three, if you do your homework.

Alex:

Okay, so let's talk about some case studies. What is a rough estimate of AP courses that a student might sit to help them stand out from the crowd?

Jamie:

That’s a good question. It varies based on the rigor of the local curriculum you're taking, and the kind of competitive market from which you're applying to these schools.

One of my students got into Harvard from Shanghai. Now, this is not trivial, because Shanghai and China are probably the most competitive regions to apply for the US from. So the student was able to get into Harvard, and he was a very talented STEM student. Over the course of three years, he took 17 AP exams, scoring fives in all of them. So early on with Crimson, we decided together that he was shooting for top schools and he had some serious academic potential. We wanted to really turbo-charge that and make sure he was pursuing a pretty aggressive exam schedule to really highlight to the schools the very diverse academic skills he had built across a wide range of subjects — so that's where the goal of 17 came from. The student ended up taking APs in History of Art, Biology, Calculus, Chemistry, Computer Science, English Language, French Language, Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, Music Theory, Physics C Electricity, Physics C Mechanics, Psychology, Stats and US History.

Now, on the flip side, we regularly help students get into schools with four APs. I can think of one of my students that’s now at Stanford, who did four APs — and I think she got a four on one of them, actually. So, there's a spectrum; if you're applying and you’re doing something like the A-Levels or the IB, and you're in a foreign country, even doing two or three additional subjects (like taking AP Computer Science with us) alongside your traditional school is a fantastic opportunity that a lot of students are doing at Crimson Global Academy.

So I'd say one to 17, that's probably the range that you can go for. And I see the top two applicants often having 10, 11, 12 APs. But again, it varies! If your local curriculum is weak, you need more, if your local curriculum is like the IB or something, which is pretty rigorous, then you don't need as many. And you don't need to necessarily double up on your subjects. Another one of my students has gone to Stanford from New Zealand; he had eight A-Levels, and I think he had four AP subjects. He kind of combined both.

Alex:

You mentioned ranges in terms of the number of subjects but also you've mentioned a couple of ages where students might look at some of these APs. The younger the better, I guess, but would you try and avoid doing APs in your final year of high school?

Jamie:

You can definitely do it. I mean, lots of students do it in the last year — the problem just depends on which hemisphere you’re in, and if you're in the northern hemisphere, sometimes you don't get the exam results back by the time you apply. So you just have predicted grades, which are fine, but it’s much better to have actually achieved the AP.

A lot of the reason people push hard to get a lot of APs done in the first several years is that you actually have the results, you can show them to the schools, there's no speculation — and so the senior APs tend to get discounted more than the APs in the previous year. In a place like New Zealand or Australia, you could definitely still take APs in your year 12 or 13 because you're not applying until November, so you can sit them in May and have your results back in time.

So I think it does vary a bit. In the southern hemisphere, I'd say you can do them all the way in your last year, while in the northern hemisphere, you still can but you're not going to get as much credit if you book them early and already achieved your grades.

Alex:

Right. And how many students do you think would be doing extra subjects on top of their local curriculum and SAT or ACT?

Jamie:

Well, let me say this, because obviously I see a cross section of very ambitious students that are opting into a pretty high octane path. The ones working with me, in particular, tend to be pushing hard. But I think in general, I would say of over 300 Crimson students admitted to the Ivy League, probably more than 200 would have either done an international curriculum like AP, A-Levels or IB, or they would have combined their local curriculum with some of these extra subjects to really strengthen their profile.

So I would say it’s generally a good idea. There are not many ways for you to differentiate academically within just one curriculum alone, if you don't take one of these modular curriculums like A-Levels or AP early and build up a lot of subjects. And some people are running an A-Level strategy or AP strategy, but a lot of them are tending towards these for the top schools, of course — but through the lens of these top schools, it's pretty common.

Alex:

Now let’s look at how to learn APs. Can you talk through some of the options that students have to learn APs through Crimson?

Jamie:

There are two ways to do this for students. The first is we provide one-on-one tutoring; we've got thousands of mentors that come from places like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Yale, etc. Crimson is really the only education company globally that has that talent from these top schools, because many of our team have been to these places and we've got a really strong brand on campus; so we were able to recruit many of these students who have just nailed many AP subjects and A-Levels, meaning they can tutor you online very effectively.

Or, you can pursue the Crimson Global Academy. You can join our school, part time or full time, and if you go full time you can even get a full US high school diploma. If you go part time, you can just take the extra APs with us in a small group class. So there are two different ways for you to learn your APs with Crimson.

Alex:

We look forward to having a couple of CGA teachers on the show as well to talk about how to nail the different AP exams that they specialize in. But for now, do you have any other final thoughts on taking APs and supplementing an application to top universities with bolstered academic rigor?

Jamie:

Just that you want to start early, because if you begin early, you have more years to get through more subjects. If I say ‘17 APs,’ it sounds a bit nuts — and if you do it one year, it probably would be nuts! But if you do it over three years, and you're thinking about say six a year, then suddenly it becomes a lot more reasonable and over four years, even more reasonable.

I encourage students to come chat to us so we can support and figure out what subjects you can handle as a starting point. We give you a lot of different diagnostics, see what academic ability you’re currently at, and how we get you rolling down that path. But you do want to begin early, so you're not trying to chase many subjects during those final phases where you should be thinking about things like application essays, interviews, etc. This is definitely something where beginning early has significant competitive advantage.

The other good thing is, it really helps you in your future as well. These subjects, like computer science and calculus, are going to build engineering skills which will really help you within your job market pursuits as well. And computer science, for example, is the second most popular career path for Crimson alumni right now with students going to work at companies like Google, Facebook, DeepMind, Uber, and many other awesome organizations. So do think about this pretty seriously — both from a candidacy perspective, but also for preparing for a competitive job market where you can really thrive.


Jamie leads a global team of thousands of tutors, mentors and strategists that are experts in the realm of college admissions and have helped scores of students gain admission to their dream universities. Curious how you can build a stand-out college application with academics that truly set you apart? Want to hear more about the AP subjects that are most suitable for you and how you can learn with Crimson’s one-on-one tutoring or Crimson Global Academy? To learn all about how Crimson can help you on the path to success, click the link below to schedule a free one hour consultation with an Academic Advisor.

Alex is the co-host of the Top of the Class Podcast

Written by

Alex C.

Alex Cork manages the Top of the Class podcast and has worked in the education sector for 10 years. He has interviewed more than 300 students and has a genuine curiosity in student achievement whether this be in sport, music, extracurriculars, academics, business or activism.