The Pros and Cons of Advanced Placement

The Positives of Advanced Placement
  • Taking an AP class will usually get your GPA knocked upwards. Depending how your particular school rates them, AP classes can be worth a full grade higher (That’s how some students end up with GPAs greater than the theoretically-perfect 4.0.) And even if your school doesn’t inflate AP grades, many college admission offices will do it for you.
  • Good AP scores can reduce your eventual college course load – and, potentially, your time in college. Generally speaking, a high score – at least three, but often a four or five out of the five-point Advance Placement test – will equate to one semester of the equivalent test. So, if you place out of four courses – it's possible to bypass an entire semester of college – which could save tens of thousands of dollars. Even placing out of one or two classes can lead to a semester of part-time student status... and significant savings.
  • College Admissions offices usually view AP classes as an indicator of “initiative.” By taking the more challenging path, schools know you aren’t scared to push yourself. In addition, since AP classes are supposed to be college level, you are showing schools that you are fully capable of doing the necessary work.

The Potential Negatives of Advanced Placement
  • Your AP scores could have zero bearing on your admissions. That’s a whole lot of work that may not have much to do with which college you get into – especially if your colleges don’t inflate grades according to the difficulty of courses.
  • Not all colleges accept AP scores for course credit, or factor in any GPA bump from the AP.
  • AP classes and study takes an inordinate amount of time. It isn’t unusual to have two or three hours of homework out of an AP class. That’s time you can’t pursue other studies, can’t devote to extracurriculars, and can’t practice for the SAT – all things that definitely will help you get into college.



1. What does the SAT measure?
The SAT consists of three sections that will each test a different aspect of your education. Each section is meant to measure your college readiness in these different subjects as well as your ability to apply the knowledge you have.

First – The Critical Reading Section (formally known as the “Verbal” section)

This part of the test includes questions pertaining to a student’s reading comprehension and their ability to make inferences and distinguish between different ideas.

Students must read both long and short passages and then answer questions about them, so it’s important that your child feels confident with their knowledge of vocabulary.

Next is the Mathematics section of the test. Students face both multiple choice and “grid-in” questions where the answer is written in by the test-taker.

Math problems include Algebra, Geometry, Number Theory, Percents and Statistics. It will test the students' ability to solve problems in all of these areas.<

Students must apply mathematical concepts that have been learned throughout high school. They must also solve word problems and use their data skills to interpret charts, graphs, and tables.

Finally – the most recent addition to the SAT test: the Writing section.

This section will test your student’s ability to clearly and effectively develop and communicate their own ideas.

It also incorporates a student’s ability to connect grammar, content and all of the writing skills developed throughout their high school careers. An essay is expected in this section, as well as identifying sentence errors.

Test takers are given a prompt, and then they must write about it. The student’s ability to revise and edit, as well as their basic understanding of grammar and sentence structure, and finally their coherence are all taken into account.

2. How many students take the SAT every year?
The SAT is one of the most widely utilized standardized tests in the world. In the 2012 graduating class, over 1.66 million students had taken the SAT at least once during their high school career.

And don’t forget the students who take the test throughout the world in order to gain entry into U.S. colleges.

In all, over 3 million students take the SAT every year in over 170 countries.

3. How many students achieve the highest possible score?
Each section of the test can receive a maximum score of 800. So with three test sections, the highest possible score a student can achieve on the SAT is a 2400. This is no easy feat, to say the least.

Of those 1.66 million U.S. test takers in 2011, the highest number of students who scored an 800 on any single section was 11,494 on the mathematics section. And only 360 of those were able to achieve that 800 on all three sections.

For those keeping track that’s a .02% chance of a perfect score, but there is nothing wrong with dreaming big!

4. When is the SAT given?
The SAT is given only 7 times a year... so you absolutely have to plan ahead.

The test is held on one Saturday morning each month in October through January as well as March, May, and June. Test dates are widely published and easily found online.

5. How is the test scored?
As mentioned in our SAT FAQs Part I, the SAT is broken up into three sections:
  • Critical Reading,
  • Mathematics, and
  • Writing.

Each has a minimum score of 200 and a maximum score of 800.

In order to determine that score on the reading and math sections of the test, their “raw score” is tabulated first.
Test takers receive one point for every correct multiple choice answer.

Students must be careful, however, not to guess blindly if they get stuck.
That's because 1/4 point will be subtracted from the “raw score” for every incorrect multiple choice answer.

Conversely, no points are deducted for omitted questions, so students must strategize about which questions to guess on and which to leave blank.

A good rule of thumb is if you can eliminate two of the multiple choice answers, than your odds are good enough to take a guess.

Also remember that, in the math section, no points are deducted if you guess wrong on questions where answers must be written in by the test taker.

So, after the “raw score” is calculated, it is converted to the 200-800 point scale by a process that the College Board calls “equating.”

This process takes into account any differences in the level of difficulty from test to test, and what you are left with is your final score for the reading or math section.

The writing section of the SAT is scored a bit more subjectively, since the test makers are looking for the overall impression that a student’s essay makes, rather than giving a standardized grade based on specific criteria.

Two readers score the essay on a scale of 1-6 and the two numbers are combined for a final score of 2-12.

This score, along with multiple choice aspects of the writing section, is also “equated” to the final 200-800 point scale.


Common Application

1. Who Accepts the Common Application?
At the moment, 488 schools accept the Common Application. The majority are private schools, but some public schools – and even international destinations – accept it as well.

Selectivity isn’t a deciding factor, either – you’ll find Ivy League schools on the list, along with top-notch liberal arts colleges like Amherst and Bates.

In short, you aren’t limiting yourself by using the Common Application. To find out if your favorite school is on the list, check here

2. Will using the Common Application hurt my candidacy?
Absolutely not, the group of schools that accept the Common Application are part of a consortium devoted to seeing the admissions process from a holistic perspective.

That means that, rather than judge applicants solely by test scores or GPAs or admission essays, these schools are committed to viewing the candidate in his or her entirety. That means academic performance, yes – but it also includes extra-curriculars, achievements in non-traditional areas, and other factors.

These schools use the Common Application specifically to de-emphasize the importance of an application packet, and do a better job viewing an applicant as a whole. So using the Common Application won’t hurt your chances of admission in any way.

3. Will I still have to write an essay?
The Common Application has space for an 2 essays; one with a minimum of 250 words and another with approximately a 250 – 500 word limit. (Most schools still like to see essays in applications).

It may not be as important a part of the process – a Common Application essay is less likely to act as a tiebreaker between candidates with similar credentials – but it still has a role. It also allows the school to see a student as a person and not just a file.

Universities want to see your ability to think, to analyze – and do work similar to what will be demanded of you in class.

In other words, it can't hurt to write a good essay.

4. Will my Common Application get lost in the shuffle?
It’s true that schools which accept the Common Application get more applicants – and a more diverse pool of applicants at that.

It’s also true that you’ll have less chance to personalize your application – since most Common Applications are submitted online.

Keep in mind – schools that accept the Common Application have vowed to treat it on an equal footing with any other application – and many schools don’t actually have any alternative to the Common Application.


Interview With UC Admissions Expert, Ms. Wei-Li Sun (April 16, 2015)

What are a-g courses and how important are they to a student’s application? For students with a low amount of a-g courses, how can they increase their number?
  • A-g courses are how the UCs determine whether you are prepared for a rigorous education at their campuses. The number of a-g courses completed is one of the top two factors considered at every UC campus (the other is GPA).
  • When choosing your school schedule, weigh the pros and cons of taking a-g courses vs. non-a-g. I know some students who pack their schedules with debate, Model UN, journalism, sports, yearbook, marching band, and/or orchestra. Having too many extracurricular activities that take up space in your regular school schedule can significantly reduce your a-g count, and that will make you less competitive for admission.
  • One of the misconceptions students and parents often have is that doing numerous extracurricular activities, even at the expense of grades, is justified. That is completely NOT true. The UCs have said, repeatedly (and are now starting to put it in writing in some of the brochures), that grades are the most important factor for admission, and that students should NEVER sacrifice school for outside activities (hardships are a different issue).
  • Take community college courses during the summer or the regular school year (most offer online classes so you cannot use scheduling as an excuse).
  • Another way is to enroll in online high schools that have UC-approved a-g and/or AP courses.
  • Verify whether the courses he or she takes at the high school, community college, and/or online high school are UC-approved.
What are some of the common misconceptions you see regarding UC essays? Do you have any general advice for the two prompts?
  • The biggest misconception I hear, over and over, especially when students and parents contact me about appealing the rejections, is “we didn’t think the essays are important” (many of these students are their high school valedictorians). The truth is that the UC personal statement will make or break your UC application.
  • Advocate for why you are the most qualified applicant and make the best student at a UC, out of a huge pool of outstanding applicants (try to do this without bashing other people). Explain why your achievements matter and how you intend to utilize the lessons you’ve learned through them when you go to college. Most importantly, explain WHY you want to go to college! This is a college application after all and I’m simply amazed by how few students discuss why they are applying.
I’ve read about the UC GPA being capped at 8 semesters AP/Honors courses. If this is true, why should students bother taking more than 4 of these AP/Honors courses? Is this the GPA that all UC’s use?
  • The capped GPA is only used to determine UC eligibility, which is not even enforced at most UCs. The only UCs still using UC eligibility (as in putting your application in the “not eligible” pile if you don’t meet the cutoff) are Merced, Riverside, and Santa Barbara. Berkeley and UCLA use fully weighted GPA for application review. Other UCs may use a slightly different scale; for example, Davis caps fully weighted GPA at 4.5 (if you have a 4.6 GPA, it will appear as 4.5). Generally each UC looks at unweighted and some form of weighted GPA. The twin GPA gives application readers a broader context of your academic achievement both within the state and within your school.
Some students I know are self-studying for AP exams in subjects that aren’t offered at their schools, and not taking the actual class itself. Is this a good idea?
  • I think it’s a great idea as it demonstrates initiative and passion for learning. Where students go wrong is not discussing this initiative and passion for learning in the personal statement (or mention it in the “Additional Comments”). Going back to what I said earlier about students relying on their achievements to speak for themselves; those achievements are drowned out by an ocean of achievements from other highly qualified applicants. Your job, as an applicant, is to point to your achievements and explain why they are significant; whether from a perspective of self-growth, passion for learning, and/or academic challenge/rigor.
  • The other mistakes students make include not focusing on their regular school work enough so their grades start slipping (not acceptable) and taking the AP exams in senior year. You want to be able to show results, to demonstrate that your initiative and passion for learning bear fruit. Schedule your time wisely and take some of these AP exams in junior year so you have something to show.
Subject tests aren’t required for UC’s. However, do they still play a significant role in the applications process?
  • Students are always surprised when I tell them that there is a website that lists all of the majors that recommend SAT Subject Tests at each UC campus. If you Google “UC recommendation sat subject test,” it should be the first search result.
  • Each UC campus does something different with the SAT Subject Test scores IF the tests are not recommended for your major. Berkeley and UCLA say that they consider good scores to be “value added” (think of them as brownie points). Some of the UCs, where tests are not recommended for any major, don’t show any SAT Subject Test scores to the application readers.
Are some majors harder to get into at each campus?
  • Engineering! Do NOT apply UNLESS you are prepared! Often time students are pushed into choosing STEM majors by their parents but aren’t interested themselves, and therefore inadequately prepared. This is the college application equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.
  • Every UC campus evaluates its engineering applicants separately. Minimal preparation involves completing AP Calculus and AP Physics by the end of your senior year; otherwise you are just not competitive for admission. You should also take other AP science courses that are related to your major (AP Biology for bioengineering, AP Chemistry for chemical engineering or electrical engineering, AP Computer Science for computer science).
  • Aside from academic preparation, you need to have extensive math, science, and/or engineering related extracurricular activities. The competition for engineering at the UCs has become so fierce that, unless you can do a song and dance about how much you love engineering (and have done great things in that field) in your UC personal statement, you have no shot at getting in.
  • Other than engineering, you can figure out which majors require additional screening by looking at whether they have recommended SAT Subject Tests. For example, majors in the College of Chemistry at Berkeley, several programs at Irvine, and College of Creative Studies at Santa Barbara all recommend SAT Subject Tests, and that signals additional screening requirements (and likely a more competitive admission process).
How would you recommend high school students who want to attend the top UCs to prepare for admission?
  • School comes first. It is your single most important priority. If you are not doing well in your classes, cut back on your extracurricular activities (but remember to explain that in your UC personal statement). Your number of a-g courses matters. Your number AP/Honors courses matters. Your GPA matters. Nothing else should come before those.
  • For extracurricular activities, formulate a coherent strategy for your participation. Don’t waste time doing one-off activities. Whatever career goal, future aspiration, and/or passion you have, make sure all of your activities coalesce around that.
What are the main qualities UCs want to see in extracurricular activities?
  • Dedication is the most important quality. What you do matters little. How long you were doing them and what you have done with them matter the most. If you love yo-yo, great! Did you know you can participate in regional, national, and international yo-yo competitions? Put in the dedication you need to make something out of what you do, turn it into a passion, demonstrate that you go above and beyond the norm.


Facts on College Sports Recruiting

  • Only 2% of high school athletes will play college sports. That encompasses NCAA Division 1, 2 & 3 programs as well as NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) and Junior College Programs. The number of athletes who receive an athletic grant is therefore even smaller. So if your student is being offered a sports scholarship, consider yourself in rare air!
  • High school athletes who are being recruited by colleges can make two different kinds of visits to the school: Official and unofficial. Official visits are paid for by the school (transportation, meals, lodging and reasonable entertainment). They can only be taken in the student’s senior year and each senior can only make five. An unofficial visit is made at the student’s own expense, but they can be made at any time, as many times as the student wants.
  • Athletic scholarships are awarded on a year-by-year basis. In order to earn their scholarship for the next year, the student must prove themselves both on the field and in the classroom. Failure to do so means a possible loss of the award for the next year.
  • NCAA Division 1, 2, NAIA and some junior colleges are able to hand out athletic grants. Division 3 schools are not able to give scholarships solely based on athletics but can give other awards and aid to athletes.
  • Students can enter into a verbal agreement to attend a certain school at any point during their recruitment. A verbal agreement is not binding and if circumstances change (say a coaching change, or an injury occurs) the school is not obligated to award you a scholarship, nor are you obligated to attend. However, verbal agreements should not be taken lightly.
  • Signing an NLI (national letter of intent) with a school is however binding. Your student can no longer be recruited by any other schools after this point. If they break their written commitment they are also not permitted to accept a scholarship at any other school the following year. So before putting it in writing – be certain!
  • Don’t wait for schools to contact you. There are roughly 570,000 high schoolers playing football and men’s/women’s basketball alone. Out of just that pool, only around 25,000 spots are available for college freshmen. So imagine how many fewer spots are available for even smaller sports! Don’t expect coaches to just magically find your student in this mass of athletes. Put together a sports “resume” of newspaper clippings and articles, stats and video that you can use to market your student to different schools. No athlete is above making the first contact with a school. It may make all the difference in getting your student noticed.
  • Recruiting services can help in getting your student noticed. But these services can be pricey – and can quickly become a money pit… and are often only worth it for getting your student maximum exposure to top schools in crowded revenue sports like football and basketball. You may be better served saving your money and handling the marketing efforts yourself unless you’re really going for the big time.
  • Start early! If you’re serious about trying to get your student an athletic scholarship the prep should begin in their sophomore year. Put together the resume, begin to contact schools and develop a dialogue with coaches. Also, if the schools you’re looking at require SAT/ACT scores, have your student take the test in their junior year. Many coaches will offer scholarships in the fall of senior year. If your student is already squared away with passing grades and test scores it’ll make it that much easier for the coach to decide on whether or not to offer them a spot and in some cases give them a deciding edge.
  • Don’t assume just because your student isn’t a superstar in a spotlight sport like football or basketball that there isn’t an opportunity for an athletic scholarship for them. There are a whole host of grants available at schools for sports as diverse as track, tennis, rowing, gymnastics, swimming, volleyball, field or ice hockey, wrestling and more. And your student doesn’t even need to be the best on their team to warrant consideration. But in order to find those schools who are willing to offer grants to athletes like yours it’s vital to research and plan ahead. These schools will almost certainly not be coming to you. If you want them, you’ll have to locate them yourself.
  • Make sure that the school you choose for your student athlete is a fit for them in all regards… not just athletics. For 99% of these students, their sports career will end at graduation and it’ll be their academics, not their batting average or win/loss record that carries them into the real world. Consider all aspects of each school – athletic, social and most importantly academic. The best fit will fulfill each factor with flying colors.