It is the time of year when families with teens begin to worry about next year’s class lineup. They know that choices made through high school will ultimately impact college options. Thus, I often get the question from parents of ambitious students, “Is it better to take an AP class or a college class?” If you have been following us for very long, you will guess rightly that the answer is, “It depends.”
AP classes have an advantage in that the score is standardized. A “5” means the same thing whether a student lives in Minnesota or in Silicon Valley. There is no grade inflation and no guessing as to the quality of the student’s knowledge.
I have found that online AP classes offered by experienced vendors such as Pennsylvania Homeschoolers are often more rigorous than a class down the street at the local community college. While AP classes are never required for college admissions (like SAT Subject tests), they are becoming so commonplace that they are almost expected at selective colleges. Self-studying is certainly an option for a few AP’s, but there is value in being guided by an expert teacher, learning to work within the confines and deadlines of the syllabus, and cooperating with other students. Colleges are hoping to see that homeschoolers have this experience for at least part of their courses, when possible. A fun aside is that the friendships made in these online classes often go the distance. Two of my clients, one from the U.S. and an expat from the Far East became friends during class and now room together at an Ivy League school!
The downside is that online AP classes are expensive, it is harder to get lab experience, and some kids just do not do well with an online format.
College classes have an advantage in that they are often of no cost to families of the community. They can offer material that is beyond the AP level. A gifted mathematician can quickly outdistance AP Calculus and Statistics. A community college provides one of few places to keep progressing. At least within state school systems, dual enrollment classes feed right into a four-year program and can significantly reduce the amount of time spent getting the undergraduate degree. Your student has a live teacher and classmates, always an advantage for kids who do better in a classroom and for homeschoolers who need to show that they are able to learn in a traditional environment.
The downside is that instructors for lower level classes can tend to be mediocre at best. A talking head who is not available to students, a non-native instructor teaching in their second language that is difficult to understand, or a TA with few teaching skills can make the experience less than ideal. Grade inflation is a huge problem and selective colleges don’t know what an “A” means from your community college down the street. This is different, of course, if you live close to a flagship state school that is well known around the country. Many selective colleges won’t give credit for classes taken at another institution, so the student starts again as a freshman. However, students can start their freshman year at a higher level.
Gifted Teachers who have worked with a student for several years can be the best choice for continuing to develop skills. One example comes to mind of a client who wanted to be a writer. After reviewing all the above options, she chose to stay with her trusted teacher who was helping her find her voice as an author. This homeschooler opted for a coveted skill set rather than an important test or a proven classroom experience.
The best option? Do your homework thoroughly for any class. Ask questions of the teacher as to their own experience, how their students perform on AP exams, etc. Talk to students in the class or review professor ratings offered by many colleges.
My clients who are most successful with highly selective college admissions are those who have been fearless and picked what was most important for them in each situation. They cherry picked the best classes they could find to move them closer to their goals. Usually this means they have a mix of AP courses, college classes, self-study, tutors, etc. By searching hard for the finest class available, they wind up with some standardized AP scores, some in-class experience, some unique study or research with a tutor, and some delight directed learning. This synergistic mix makes for a vibrant student with a proven track record that selective colleges are eager to admit.
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