You gotta play the game

by Lorien E. Menhennett

When I was in high school, it was practically a mantra: “Take A.P. Take A.P. Take A.P.”

This referred to Advanced Placement classes, designed to teach the same concepts as a first-year college course. At the end of the school year, a standardized exam was offered to test your proficiency of the material. Based on your score (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest possible), you could receive college credit for the course.

Those of us students on the so-called “honors” track heard this mantra from teachers, guidance counselors, parents, and even other students. And so we bought into it. I bought into it, taking A.P. Biology, Chemistry, Spanish, U.S. History, and Calculus throughout my junior and senior years. I scored well on the exams, and earned enough college credit so that when I entered the University of Illinois in the fall of 1999, I was technically a second-semester sophomore – not a freshman – in terms of credits. I was able to bypass introductory courses and take more advanced (and smaller) classes, which was a major advantage at a huge university such as UIUC.

Pretty sweet. Or so I thought.

It turns out, however, that medical schools do not look favorably on A.P. credits. They want students to have taken the courses at a university. Which means that I will have to retake Calculus. Which, in my mind, makes no sense. It’s not that I’m afraid of Calculus – I got an A in the course the first time, and scored a 5 on the A.P. exam, so I am clearly capable of mastering the material. No, what doesn’t make sense is that I have already mastered the material and have to prove it all over again. And spend several thousand dollars (and dozens of hours of my time, and god only knows how much pencil lead and calculator juice) doing so, just to have that line item on my transcript.

So my A.P. credit is worthless. I busted ass – and when I say I busted ass, I mean BUSTED ASS, because Calculus isn’t easy – for jack. No, I shouldn’t say that; not for jack, because I did learn the material, and it’ll be easier the second time around.

But then is the whole A.P. thing a sham? A waste of time, a way for the College Board (the institution that sponsors the A.P. exams) to make money, a way for Cliff’s Notes to make money on review books, a way for schools to tout their students’ success, a way for students to boost their GPAs (many schools offer an extra GPA point for honors and A.P. classes) and to claim superiority over others who take fewer A.P. courses or who do not score as well on the exams?

Perhaps A.P. courses – and credit – are worthwhile for students who enter less competitive fields, or who do not intend on completing graduate level work. But apparently they are worthless for those of us who intend on entering medical school.

Which is frustrating, since taking A.P. courses was, in high school, the indicator of success and high achievement. And that’s what – I thought – medical schools wanted.

In an ideal world, medical schools would accept A.P. credits. If they have issues with the A.P. curriculum, they should take that up with the College Board. But this is not an ideal world, obviously. So it would be helpful for high school guidance counselors to let students know that taking A.P. credits doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will get to skip out of that class in the future.

If I had to do it all over again, I would still take A.P. Calculus in high school. I learned a new way of approaching math, and when I take this course again this fall, I will be ahead of the game. But I’ve also learned that to get into medical school, you have to play their game. And it’s a frustrating one.