Why is it important to take challenging classes?
Johnson, L.
The Challenge
The Center for Gifted Studies
No. 14

This article, by Leigh Johnson, discusses some of the common misconceptions that lead many people to believe they should stay away from more challenging classes earlier in their education. "Engaging in fast-paced learning now ensures a foundation for continued exploration at the college level."

College professors know the difference in their classes when they meet a student who has learned how to work hard, challenge assumptions, and think like a college student while in high school. Challenging, enriching course selection in high school makes a committed, interested student in college. But why not take the easy road; there's plenty of time to work hard later, right? Not really. Engaging in fast-paced learning now ensures a foundation for continued exploration at the college level. Some of the popular arguments against challenging classes can actually hurt you if you buy into them. Let's dispel some of these common misconceptions.

MISCONCEPTION 1: I have a great GPA; I won't have any trouble getting into college.
Congratulations! But you're going to need more to get into and pay for your dream school. Colleges take a close look at your transcript, not just your GPA. They want to know if you took the most challenging classes your school offered. If your schedule includes study halls, maybe you didn't take another year of Spanish or challenge yourself with Calculus. Would you contribute to the intellectual environment in college, or go with what is easy? Colleges look for applicants that will actively participate in and improve the campus community.

What kind of extracurricular activities are you involved in? Speech, Community Service, 4-H, FFA, Tennis, Boys and Girls Club, and Science Club can all help a college get to know you better and appreciate your energy. Do you stick with your extracurricular activities? Do you have leadership experience on your team or with your organization? The commitment you make to your activities indicates the commitment you will make to the campus organizations you join. A person who has organized a recycling drive for the Science Club is more impressive than someone who showed up to a few meetings.

MISCONCEPTION 2: If I take a harder class and get a lower grade, there goes my scholarship money.
Universities are much more concerned that you challenged yourself and engaged in intellectual exploration. Harvard Admissions says, "There is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, but the strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them. The Admissions Committee recognizes that schools vary by size, academic program, and grading policies, so we do not have rigid grade requirements. We do seek, students who achieve at a high level, and most admitted students rank in the top 10-15% of their graduating classes." Centre College looks primarily at the "quality of the high school coursework." Your choice to take a more difficult class improves your chances of getting into the college you choose.

MISCONCEPTION 3: If I get a lower grade in a College Board Advanced Placement class, I won't get as much Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) money.
KEES money, based on GPA with bonuses based on ACT and SAT scores, will reward you for taking AP courses. KEES requires high schools to weight AP classes on a 5.0 scale. So if you make a B in an AP class, it averages as a 4.0 on your transcript. AP classes can actually help you get more KEES money.

MISCONCEPTION 4: The university I want to go to won't accept AP credit.
By law, all Kentucky state-funded universities must give credit for AP scores of 3 or better (Senate Bill 74). Individual school websites will show exactly how much credit a student can earn. A student can get up to 9 credit hours for one test. Private schools in Kentucky will accept a 3, 4, or better for college credit. Vanderbilt, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Stanford all accept AP credit. Nationwide, more than 90% of colleges and universities accept AP credit.

"I took AP classes starting with US History my sophomore year. These classes have allowed me to accumulate 27.5 credit hours, which is 2.5 hours shy of sophomore standing. Along with the credit hours, 1 have gained experience with a course load containing the breadth and depth of college coursework. It has been an invaluable experience."
-DEBRA CECIL, Western Kentucky University Freshman

MISCONCEPTION 5: I don't need to take honors or more difficult classes prior to the AP class.
Those foundation classes prepare you for the advanced thinking you will be asked to do in an AP or college class. Every time you challenge yourself in an academic environment, you become more prepared for and more likely to succeed in future scholarly endeavors.

MISCONCEPTION 6: The AP tests are too expensive!
The tests seem expensive. Consider though, an AP test costs $82 and can net you 3 hours of college credit. At Western Kentucky University, where a credit hour costs $169, you've saved $425! At Transylvania University, you will have saved $5060!

AP also offers fee reduction. A student going for the Commonwealth Diploma can be reimbursed by the state of Kentucky for her AP test fees. At these rates, you can't afford not to take AP classes and tests.

"My AP classes gave me enough credit to graduate a semester early. The money I saved by not going that semester allowed me to study abroad in Romania, something I've always wanted to do! I guess you could say, AP opened up another side of the world."
-LEIGH JOHNSON, Western Kentucky University Graduate Student

MISCONCEPTION 7: AP might help me get into college, but it won't help me once I'm already there.
An AP class gives you a chance to "take a college class for free." Do you know what a syllabus is? You'll learn in college if not in your AP class. A rigorous AP class will help you learn time management and study planning. The AP test is much like a college final -- in some classes a final can be 30-60% of your grade. Most importantly, AP classes teach you how to think and ask questions -- essential skills for a university setting. These statistics can make it even more clear:

  • College students who have not taken an AP class have a 33% chance of completing a Bachelor's Degree;
  • College students who have completed one AP course have a 59% chance of completing a Bachelor's Degree; and
  • College students who have completed two or more AP courses increase to 76% their chances of attaining a Bachelor's Degree.
    From: Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Attainment at http://www. ed.gov/pubs/Toolbox/toolbox.html.

AP classes will not only help you in college, but they also substantially improve your chances for successfully completing college.

Participating in a challenging learning environment prepares students for the academic curiosity and commitment necessary to succeed in a university setting. Colleges recognize that students who actively pursue intellectual opportunities in high school are more likely to be the kind of students that do well on an interactive college campus -- even if they didn't get the highest grades in their challenging classes. If you've ever climbed a hill you didn't think you could climb or written an essay you couldn't even figure out how to start, then you can imagine the satisfaction of completing a challenging class with a new definition of "your best effort."


Contributed by: DITD Team Member on 2/9/2005
This article is helpful for Young Scholars and students who have contemplated taking AP and/or more challenging classes earlier in their education. Do these classes really benefit the student? Read the article to find out the answer.

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