APs and the Stress Meter

The other day on the NACAC listserv people were asking about how many APs a student should take and whether schools should limit the number.I think this is an interesting question having just finished “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids” and been introduced to the student called “AP Frank,” who ended up taking 17 (yes, 17) APs at Walt Whitman HS outside of DC. The story of the brutal way he was forced to do this by his mother (who also insisted that he get straight As) will make your hair stand on end. (A good book to read in conjunction with Marilee Jones’s book, “Less Stress, More Success.”)

We do not limit APs at the Lab School where I work (we offer 17) but scheduling considerations and so on more or less do that for us. The most I’ve seen a student
take here is nine. That’s a lot. What worries me more is when a student takes two AP lab sciences and AP calc in the same year. I won’t sign off on this combination unless the student seems genuinely enthusiastic and excited about the courses and the work. Otherwise, we have a long talk about what he/she is getting into and how it can affect the other aspects of life.

With all due respect to Bill Fitzsimmons at Harvard and others, who lament the burned out kids they see and wish they could come to Harvard more relaxed and cheerful, I think that sounds like a Philip Morris executive bemoaning the lung cancer caused by cigarettes while
offering the cancer patient another smoke: If you want to relax kids for real, colleges and universities, tell them NOT to take more than a certain number of APs; tell them you’ll consider a laundry list of activities a SIGNIFICANT negative on an application; tell them you
want to see examples of creative uses of free time that don’t involve intensive 6-week summer programs in arcane subjects. I think you get the idea. Colleges, tell kids and families (and help US tell them) why it might have a negative affect on their application if you see too much stuff. Certain colleges (MIT, for example) have reduced the number of spaces they have for extracurriculars or have asked students to list only their top three things as a way of indicating
their positions, but I think the conversation needs to happen earlier.

I felt as long ago as the mid-90s that colleges seemed to want kids who were already “fully educate


About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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