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Straight A’s and AP classes do not equal success for college students

I’ve been helping students prepare for college for about 20 years. From what I’ve seen many families put way too much importance on getting straight A’s and/or taking AP classes (ironically good grades alone aren’t enough to get admitted into most colleges nowadays… but that’s a different discussion). Most parents and students I speak to believe they will be successful in college simply because they took AP classes or because they got A’s their whole life.

However, my experience working with college students at a major university has shown these two metrics are not good indicators of success. In fact, I was (in)famously known for giving a speech to incoming Freshman every year explaining that they were the brightest class with the highest GPA’s and SAT test scores to ever be admitted in the school’s history. Each of them were the best of the best from schools spread out across the county. After the students looked around and gave themselves pats on the back, I then explained that they were about to encounter a challenge that most of them have never faced before…being average. You see, when everyone in the room has 4.0 GPA’s and 1600 SAT scores, they are all simply average compared to their peers. Some students crumble under the pressure of not being the best anymore because they’ve never experienced it before. Other students know how to learn and adapt to the pressure and use it to thrive.

Straight A’s don’t prepare students for failure.

Every semester I’d have at least one student in my office crying over a failed test, quiz, or project. Failing at something was such an overwhelming experience they didn’t know how to process their emotions. To help calm them down, I’d try my best to reassure them that their world has not been crushed. I would share my personal hacks on how to study the material more effectively plus I’d encourage them to talk to me during office hours.

In the end, I tried to get them to focus on a growth mindset. In other words, I helped them understand it is far better to be someone who has failed and learned how to get back up versus someone who’s never had to struggle.

AP classes may be overrated.

If a student scores high enough on an AP exam, most universities will give the student credit towards their general education requirement of the same subject matter. So if a student does well enough on AP Economics, AP History, AP Calculus, AP Spanish, etc, they could get enough credit towards a university’s general education requirements that the student might be able to bypass their Freshman year and graduate sooner. Parents like this idea because they’re hoping their child will spend less time in college, hence pay less overall.

More often than not, the problem that I’ve seen is when high school students by-pass a university’s general education courses, they enroll in a higher-level class and discover they are not prepared. I usually have found graduates of AP classes lacked a true understanding of the material and lacked the needed underlying foundation of knowledge. A common criticism of AP classes is there is a focus on memorizing answers for the exam instead of actually learning the material.

The other problem when a recent high school graduate bypasses the typical Freshman classes and jumps in the Sophomore classes is they often are caught off-guard by how much work they need to commit outside of the class to understand the material. Generally speaking, it’s better to struggle in Freshman college classes and figure out how to adjust your study habits versus struggling in a Sophomore class and fall behind other students who have more experience.

In conclusion, every child is different and will respond in their own way. What I do to help my students prepare for college is not to focus so much on grades, but rather focus on learning. So instead of asking “What did you learn this week?”, I prefer to ask “What questions did you ask your teachers this week?”. That helps me gauge just how engaged my students are in their classes. I also focus on building them up with good habits that enable them to persist when they hit obstacles in life. I want them to know how to get back up after they have fallen. I find having this type of character is a far better indicator of success in college and ultimately in one’s career.