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Q & A: Death by A.P. Course, Initializing the Autopilot, and Shameless Promotion

July 9th, 2008 · 9 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

College classes are generally spaced out; each class meets once or twice a week and you take only 4 to 6 classes per semester. Isn’t applying your tips to a class schedule like this easier than applying them to a rigid high school schedule of 9 periods, 7 of which could be AP (which is how my schedule is based next year)?

Cal responds:

High school has a different rhythm than college, and therefore requires a slightly different approach. With this in mind, I have two big pieces of advice…

First: it is easier to screw yourself with your schedule in high school. At the college level you take a small number of courses all of which are expected to be tough. In high school, on the other hand, you have 8 or 9 periods to fill. It is not expected that every one of these periods is equally hard. There is lunch, and gym, and maybe a study hall or two. There is also the possibility of lighter electives or vocational classes sprinkled throughout.

If, however, you try to fill most of these periods with the toughest possible classes — ahem, 7 A.P.s !? — you can get into a situation where it’s almost impossible to keep up. So my first piece of advice: craft a balanced schedule.

This basic advice has become harder to preach because, at some point, high school students collectively decided that the more A.P. courses you take at once, the better your chances of getting accepted at a top college. This is masochistic nonsense. It has no basis in the reality of how admission decisions are made.

My advice: Don’t schedule more than two A.P. courses per term. Balance them with other courses you enjoy. Do well. And stop killing yourself! In my humble opinion: 7 A.P.s at once is ridiculous; your health will suffer, your grades will become erratic, and it’s not going to help you get into Harvard. So why do it?

My second piece of advice: start early and work constantly. There are many more assignments in high school, but they are also much smaller than college assignments. The key is to avoid pile-up. An efficient strategy is to put in 1-3 hours every weekday at the local library. The quiet lets you focus and rip through your work.

While I’m at, I’ll mention that you should not write papers all at once. Do little pieces throughout the weeks leading up the deadline and finish it in one final weekend spurt. Never — and I can’t emphasize this enough — work on or near any machine with an Internet connection. Facebook and IM will increase the time required to finish a writing assignment by a factor of 3 or 4. Write first. Go online later.

Thus endeth my high school fire and brimstone study sermon…

From the reader mailbag:

I have been trying to get better at studying for the past 2 years of college. An autopilot schedule is exactly what I need, but that’s harder said than done. Any tips?

Cal responds:

As I’ve learned from my College Chronicles experience, it’s difficult to jump from disarray into precision organization all at once. It’s just too much. What happens is that small things in your new super schedule will slip through the cracks and this, in turn, will destabilize the whole shebang, quickly sliding you back into your old ways.

My advice: start slow. Maybe with just one or two autopilot sessions per week. Try this for a month. Once you get used to reaping the benefits of getting some work done regularly, habitatize a few more obligations. The students with the most efficient study systems tend to get there step by step.

If you’re looking for a little more guidance, you might check out Scott Young’s recent articles on conducting 30 Day Trials.

From the reader mailbag:

I am interested in reading your books. Does the content of one book build on the other, i.e. where should I start — which book?

Cal responds:

Here’s my advice: buy several hundred copies of both then distribute them to your most influential friends in the popular media.

Once this is complete, then keep in mind that neither book really follows the other. How to Win at College is 75 pithy rules for improving all aspects of your college experience. How to Become a Straight-A Student focuses entirely, and in great detail, on the academic piece of college life.

You can read excerpts of both here. There are also more than 25 Amazon reviews of each here and here. (As I always mention, only a handful of the early reviews for each are from people I know.)

9 thoughts on “Q & A: Death by A.P. Course, Initializing the Autopilot, and Shameless Promotion

  1. Li says:

    Your How to win at College was an amazing book. I’ve utilized your tips during the last 2 months of high school and it made me so much more efficient on my endless senior project readings.
    However I would like to disagree on the number of AP courses you suggested. If you are particularly good at a subject, or if the teacher presents the material well, considering workload of a particular subject, you could increase your workload. I agree that 7 is too much, but while you are doing well you should also push yourself a little,perhaps 3 or 4 AP’s in my opinion.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    I agree that 7 is too much, but while you are doing well you should also push yourself a little,perhaps 3 or 4 AP’s in my opinion.

    Okay, okay, you might be right. Certainly under the right conditions 3 could be perfectly manageable. I might be going for a bit of shock value here; trying to jolt some students out of the mindset that it’s not the specific courses, but the overall impression given by having a crazy amount of courses that is important.

  3. Sherif says:

    I took 6 AP courses my senior year in high school, and that was the biggest mistake I’ve made.My study skills were terrible and I ended up failing one AP course. Now, I don’t take more than two hard courses each semester and my grades have been stellar. In fact, I just got back my Humanities paper today with an A on it.

    And taking too many AP courses won’t get you into Harvard either. My friend had an AP laden schedule and was in the top ten, but he was rejected by Harvard, and every other ivy league school he applied to. Your extracurricular activities/achievements have nearly the same value as grades and SAT scores when applying to top colleges.

  4. a student says:

    One thing regarding AP courses was that I regret not taking *applicable* ones. I merely took the ones that had a reputation for being easy, with the hopes of getting the credit (I did, but it was completely useless in University). What I should have done was get the APs I needed, because one thing I find is that anything you do in University will be much, much harder than anything you do in highs school (even if it is an AP credit)!

  5. Richard says:

    … at some point, high school students collectively decided that the more A.P. courses you take at once, the better your chances of getting accepted at a top college. This is masochistic nonsense. It has no basis in the reality of how admission decisions are made.

    While the mysterious and arcane details of the college admissions process are somewhat hidden from us, common sense and my conversations with college admissions officers suggest that a student from High School X who takes significantly fewer AP courses than other students at that school will be judged accordingly. And regardless of the number of AP courses taken, admissions decisions ARE based on Grade Point Average, which is in turn based in part upon the enhanced grades available to some students in their AP courses.
    As a teacher at a high school where many of our students do tend to take more AP classes than their schedules allow, I’m absolutely sympathetic to this concerns regarding balance, and appreciate your addressing this issue. I think we have to be fair, though, in acknowledging that taking AP courses, when they are suitable to a student’s abilities and level, give that student an advantage when it comes time to college admissions.
    Respectfully, it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

  6. Study Hacks says:

    I think we have to be fair, though, in acknowledging that taking AP courses, when they are suitable to a student’s abilities and level, give that student an advantage when it comes time to college admissions.

    I respect your insight; especially coming, as it does, from the perspective of a high school teacher who deals with these students daily. I think this caveat is crucial.

    What I worry about — and I would be interested in your more experienced take — is the idea that overload impresses colleges. That is, students who sign up for 6, 7, or even, as someone just e-mailed me, 9 A.P.s at once, simply because they think — mistakenly, I hope! — that the sheer craziness of this volume is for some reason really impressive to colleges. There are few students that I know who could handle this much load without serious sacrifice, and it’s unclear that the jump from 2 – 3 A.P.s to 6 – 9 makes a big difference in high stakes admissions, where academic stardom alone cannot earn admission in a crowded field.

  7. Richard says:

    My understanding–again, based on conversations with college admissions officers and local high school-level college counselors–is that colleges and universities typically take into account both a student’s individual achievement in school and the achievement of a typical student from that school. This would ostensibly allow the high-achieving student attending a school where few AP courses are offered to “compete” with another student from a different school where more AP classes were available. Admissions officers have statistical data for each high school (supplied by that school each year) that provide an additional context for evaluating students.

    I share your amazement at the number of APs that some students appear to have room for in their schedule. I teach at a very highly-rated private school with a strong college admissions record, and it’s most unusual for our students to take more than 3-4 AP courses in a single year. As an AP teacher myself, I’ve had the responsibility of guiding students in making decisions about their courseloads, including occasionally counseling them to cut down on their activities (sometimes a sport, sometimes my own course). I’d be interested to hear more of the specifics from those students who are taking 6-9 AP courses.

    I’d like to think that, when it comes to admissions, there is some awareness of the dangers of overload. The reality appears to be, however, that colleges give preference to students who can do it all: excel at a very high academic level, write amazing application essays, edit the school newspaper, volunteer at a local hospital, hold down a part-time job, tutor fellow students in AP Calculus, be captain of the soccer team, play in the school orchestra, and intern at a local research facility.

    There may be comfort in finding the use of the word “balance” on some Letter of Recommendation forms. Perhaps some colleges and universities are starting to understand that a student’s ability to balance the commitments in his or her life is an important skill, and one that may have a significant impact on success in school.

    We can hope!

    Thanks again for your excellent blog. It has become a valued part of my regular online reading.

  8. Liza says:

    I was curious to see your opinion on AP courses on this website, and I find it very insightful!

    Just to let you know (you probably do, but I’ll say it anyways), AP courses are year-round, so it is rather difficult to add one to a high school schedule for a second semester if you did not take it the first one (plus, my school had summer assignments for AP courses, so it was an all-or-nothing commitment).

    Other than that, you gave some wonderful points! Definitely think that the earlier you work on an assignment, the better.

    One more thing I want to add for those upcoming high school students out there: if you feel up to it, start taking AP courses in your freshman year (at least ones that don’t have any prerequites). I never did, but I think it would have helped tremendously in getting me some more credit for college. Plus, I would have felt less stressed about how many AP courses I had to take while in high school and would have been forced to learn how to study for AP courses earlier. In the end, you’re the only one who can decide your schedule, but definitely think about it. (You can always talk to counselors and teachers if you want advice!)

  9. Bennett says:

    I took 4 AP Classes my junior year and 5 my senior year and self studied for another AP Test, and actually found it easier than my earlier honors classes. This was quite simply because the grade was almost entirely based on tests, and I could quite easily do very well on the tests. I also took these classes while captaining my football, breaking weightlifting records, maintaining a 4.1, scoring a 34 on my ACT, volunteering as a coach, participating in Spanish National Honors Society, and I have never got less than a 4 on one of the AP tests. It is not impossible to take that load, you just need to use every minute in school, and prioritize after school.

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