AP stands for Advanced Placement test, and the College Board, the company that develops and administers it, thinks high schoolers should take a few.

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Choosing a high school course load with an eye on college admissions is a delicate dance. Should students tackle challenging courses and risk getting lower grades? Should they aim for perfect grades and a less demanding schedule? Most of all, they wonder, how do college admissions heads feel about all this?

Visit the College Board website (collegeboard.org) and check out the page called “AP Students.” AP stands for Advanced Placement test, and the College Board, the company that develops and administers it, thinks high schoolers should take a few.

The dialogue bubbles on the “Why Take AP?” page articulate the reasons: “Show colleges I’m serious about my education,” “Save money on college tuition,” “Earn college credit.” And then there’s the message that, among high school students, resonates the most: “Stand out in the college admissions process.”

AP courses, offered at nine Seattle Public Schools high schools as well as other Seattle-area schools, are college-level classes that explore subjects in greater depth than typical high school courses do. Qualifications to enroll in AP classes vary; some schools ask for teacher recommendations or a minimum grade in a prerequisite course, and other schools welcome anyone wanting to sign up. AP courses are considerably more rigorous than the usual high school offerings, requiring students to step up their level of focus, diligence and sheer old-fashioned effort.

After completing an AP class, students take a two- to three-hour exam, earning a score that ranges from 1 (the lowest) to 5 (the highest). Over 90 percent of colleges and universities in the United States offer course credit, advanced placement or both for scores — at least a 3 — that qualify, according to the College Board. Some schools give no academic credit at all for AP test scores.

Getting out of the comfort zone

Should every student sign up for an AP class or two? Educational consultant Roger Cibella, president of Cibella & Associates in Seattle, doesn’t think so. “There’s so much work — and it’s at a very high level. The courses are not designed for everyone,” he says. “But if students want to challenge themselves, and they’re smart and capable, AP-level courses will provide a richer experience than the regular track.”

Students often think these classes will help them get into a more selective college, he says. But it’s not enough to simply take an advanced class — colleges want students who do well in them. “Why put a kid in an AP class who doesn’t understand math?” he asks. “It’s not a good choice for a student to take an AP and get a C.”

Philip Ballinger, University of Washington associate vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, is a strong proponent of APs. Yes, he says, AP classes are primarily for good students. But Ballinger has also seen kids with weaker academic skills succeed in them.

“I’ve always admired the leadership in schools where every student automatically gets into these demanding courses. That is very brave — and often you have to swim upstream,” says Ballinger. “But that is more democratic than picking and selecting students for the limited courses that may be offered.”

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Garfield High School in Seattle has a very inclusive AP policy and encourages students to take at least one of the Seattle school’s 18 AP offerings.

“We try to get as many students in these as possible,” says Kristi Harris, who teaches AP English Language and AP English Literature. Students are warned that AP courses — as well as honors classes — are demanding. But anyone who decides to brave college level chemistry, physics, Japanese or computer science, for example, can take one. And 60 percent of Garfield students do just that, Harris says.

“We want to challenge students and encourage them to get out of their comfort zones,” she says. “We’ll tell them to take one of these classes and see how it goes.”

Students who struggle with them need to put in extra effort, reports Harris.

“I’ve seen kids who were discouraged in the beginning and then made big improvements,” she says.

And tackling an AP class is about more than taking a test, says Harris. “Not everyone has to take or pass the exam. For some students, working hard in a college course that will help get them ready for college is enough.”

Taking the hard road

AP courses equip students to be better learners, says Ballinger. “The students who take AP or other rigorous classes are more prepared and do better in college.” And, from a college admissions perspective, “taking the easy road” is always a bad decision, notes Ballinger, who served as UW admissions head for nine years.

Increasing numbers of Washington state students are opting out of the easy road. According to the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, 21,583 Washington high school graduates (34.1 percent) in the class of 2013 took at least one AP exam — an increase of nearly 5 percent from 2012 and 123 percent from 2003.

While not every Seattle-area high school offers AP courses, many offer college level curriculum options such as IB (International Baccalaureate Program; see page 6), Running Start (Students in 11th and 12th grades take courses at community and technical colleges; see page 11) or honors classes. Some independent schools, such as Lakeside High School and University Prep, don’t offer AP classes, but provide a curriculum that, as Lakeside notes on their website, “meets or exceeds AP material.”

Are AP classes consistently good? Not necessarily, says Olivia Rosen, a Dartmouth College junior and Mercer Island High School grad. The quality of an AP class depends largely on the teacher, says Rosen. “Some teachers are very passionate about the subject, but others just teach to the test.”

Rosen took AP Calculus, Comparative Government and United States History (“as many APs as I had time for,” she says), motivated by the competitive college application process. “I wanted the colleges to see I was taking challenging classes,” she says.

She felt that was particularly important because she attended a public school. “Many applicants come from private and boarding schools and the colleges know that their classes are rigorous,” says Rosen.

Some students, hoping to stand out, pile on too many APs, says Cibella. “They think they must take them because the other kids are. Then they get overwhelmed.”

Ballinger says often it’s the parents who pressure their child to pack their schedules with AP courses. “Three of these classes in a year is a heavy load. But more than that? They’d better be prodigies,” he says.

Ultimately, students need to decide what’s best for them, says Harris. “We discuss stress levels, work load, extracurriculars and what they can handle.”

For Harris, the payoff comes when students return for a post-high school visit — and report that her classes enabled them to do well in college. “If I can help them, I feel like I’ve succeeded,” she says.