My heart broke today when I learned about yet another teen suicide in Palo Alto. Looking through the comments on the article, as well as notes from recent community forums, it's clear that many parents and students in the PAUSD want to cap the number of APs a student can take -- or even eliminate APs altogether.
I haven't decided if that's a good idea or not. But, through my experience working and studying with admissions officers at Stanford, as well as working as a college admissions counselor, I have decided one thing:
AP classes make you look complacent, not curious.
Why? Think about it from an admissions officer's perspective.
Say you've got... I dunno... 8,000 applicants who took AP U.S. History; AP Calculus; AP Biology; AP Physics; AP Language; and AP Whatever Else...
And then you've got one student who was curious about Marine Biology. So she took a Marine Biology elective -- you know, instead of AP Fill-in-the-Blank. And she loved it so much that she applied for an internship at an aquarium -- and used the money to get scuba certified! Then, with several dives under her weight belt, she completed her Underwater Naturalist certification. Meaning she could (and did) go out into the wild and identify animals, plants, real examples of commensalism, parasitism, amensalism and synnecrosis.
Realizing that the underwater world is completely different at night, she then took a part-time job to pay for a Night Diver course at her local dive shop. Fascinated by all this, she knew she would (probably) do something biology-related in college, and decided to take her one and only AP in Biology.
Which student would you admit?
Colleges don't want to fill their ranks with zombies. They've gotten better, lately, at recognizing the difference between a hoop-jumper who wants to do one of six things after graduation, or whose only real goal is getting into their first-choice school (which, by the way, is not an accomplishment)... and someone with real interests. Real passion. Real courage.
Because in today's toxic, high-achieving, and sometimes suicide-inducing environment... it takes courage to not follow the same path as everyone else. It takes courage not to push yourself to tears on a weekly basis. It takes courage not to take on more than you can handle -- and, instead, to develop your real passions. Whether they be Harry Potter links, vintage fashion, ear training, or something else.
Real passion is getting rarer and rarer as more kids hurry through childhood, sacrificing playtime for homework and flashcards time. And parents aren't helping. Last week, when a New York elementary (elementary!) school banned homework, parents weren't supportive. They were enraged! Many threatened to pull their kids out of that school if the policy wasn't changed.
Parents didn't want their kids to play. They wanted their kids to stress and do busywork. I guess they missed the memo: the best way to give your child a creative, entrepreneurial mind isn't with flashcards. It's through great questions, great dialogue and exploration.
Like, this kid. He's going to be a freaking water/plumbing/flood control/interior design/something else genius some day.
I can imagine his college essay now: "It all started with my passion for toilets."
But seriously. Not only does it take courage to pave your own path to success... it's also a lot harder than following the painful, stressful, well-trodden one that every other high-achiever is following.
Because instead of following the crowd, jumping through hoops and doing all the "right" things... you actually have to think. You actually have to ask yourself, "What am I passionate about?" "What do I want, and how can I find or create an opportunity for that?" or even just, "What if?"
It takes self-awareness. It takes outside-the-box thinking. It takes true ownership and leadership skills -- not contrived "I'm starting some kind of club at school this year because doing so will look good on my college app" leadership.
It takes the kinds of skills that computers, outsourced workers and machines don't have. Skills that will be valuable in the future.
And colleges have realized this. Their admissions standards aren't perfect yet, but they're shifting. Lani Guinier, Harvard Law professor and author of The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America:
To solve complex problems, you don’t just want only those people who do well on the SAT or who do really well on the LSAT... The LSAT is a very weak predictor of the students’ success in law school. The LSAT predicted 14 percent of the variance in the first year of law school, and 15 percent in the second year, which means that 85 percent of the time the LSAT was not predictive. So my point is that we should be nurturing a diverse group of problem solvers rather than measuring a much less diverse group of test takers.
Moreover, according to one Stanford admissions officer I spoke with,
Stanford is as guilty as other highly-selective schools at admitting strong test-takers... But we are definitely now doing a better job than before of admitting a DIVERSE group of those students.
In other words, grades and test scores aren't the be-all, end-all of top schools.
Even if they were, so what? "Paly Sophomore" lamented in the comments of the aforementioned news article that he was afraid of disappointing his parents by going to a state school like UC Davis. To which I say: a lot of UC Davis students graduate much more prepared for a career than a lot of Stanford students. Especially if you want a career in something crazy cool, like winemaking, bird catching or veterinary medicine. Throughout this blog, I've given countless examples of people who didn't go to top schools who still built amazing success, amazing lives, or both.
This proud UC Davis alum turned her weird bird obsession into a career in ornithology -- she's worked in Point Reyes National Seashore, the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, Hawaii and Utah. She and her friends always amaze me with the interesting jobs they end up finding. By comparison, my Stanford friends are kind of boring...
Besides, it's not like you're going to graduate from an Ivy and people will just start throwing jobs at you because of your degree. (For more, check out Going to Stanford Doesn't Mean You'll Get a Stanford Education - And Going to a State School Doesn't Mean You Won't.) They care a lot more about your experience and relevant coursework. Your Stanford degree will help a little. It'll open the door for you a little. But it's up to you to impress hiring managers. Because they're hiring people, not degrees.
But I digress.
The point is, in a world of automation and outsourced workers -- in a world of passionless, directionless overachievers -- your APs aren't going to make you look interesting. They're not going to make you stand out.
They're just going to make you look like you're good at following the path others set and doing things computers do better, but you don't have any "real" passion.
For more, check out The Two Biggest Mistakes Students Make on Their College Apps Have NOTHING To Do With Writing.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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