Not All Matching GPAs are Created Equally

Can taking Advanced Placement courses in high school improve a student’s chances for admission to certain colleges? In general, the more selective a college is, the greater weight it gives to an applicant’s having completed AP courses.

Highly selective Macalester College in St. Paul, which accepts about a third of its applicants, looks “pretty closely at the type of classes a student takes,” said Max Crowder, admissions officer. “When we see a student apply who has not availed himself of the AP options at his high school, that’s a red light for us. We want to see that a student has taken tougher courses.”

Indeed, the College Board, which oversees the Advanced Placement program and administers its examinations, views AP courses as preparation for college-level work. Students who complete AP courses can sit for exams that are evaluated on a five-point system. Scores of 5 or 4, and sometimes 3, enable students to qualify for college credit. The value of college credits varies from institution to institution. Colleges often post on their websites what their specific requirements are.

At the University of Iowa, “the higher the score, the more college credit, especially in math and science faculties,” said Debra Miller, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions. While AP courses in general do not increase the likelihood of admission to Iowa, “they do affect scholarship considerations,” said Miller. “Iowa is a strong AP school.” At Iowa, for example, scores of 5, 4, and 3 in AP Art History qualify for college credit, while for AP Chemistry a score of 5 would be needed.

“Advanced Placement credit awarding is always under review,” said Rachelle Hernandez, associate vice-provost for enrollment management and director of admissions at the University of Minnesota. She points out that not all high schools offer AP courses, but that “we want students to take full advantage of the resources available at their school.”

The U of M considers primary and secondary factors in their admissions decisions. Primary factors include grade point average, courses taken, grades in those courses and test scores. Secondary factors include extracurricular activities such as student council, band or athletic team involvement, and community service. “In our holistic review of an application, we give the greatest emphasis to a student’s academic preparation,” said Hernandez.

Sarah Richardson, director of admissions and scholarships at Creighton University in Omaha, hopes to attract well-rounded students. “We want students who haven’t just buried themselves in academics,” she said. “All 4.0 GPAs are not created equal. It’s about finding a balance in taking AP courses and participating in non-academic activities.” More than 100 students from Minnesota will enroll at Creighton this fall.

Students and their families will have to decide for themselves what the right balance is, as AP courses typically require more homework and testing than regular courses do, leaving less time for other activities. Knowing early in one’s high school career what college one hopes to attend can help to guide a student’s decision on whether to take AP courses or not.