There's more than one way to prepare for AP exams | May 15, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - May 15, 2009

There's more than one way to prepare for AP exams

by Maria Shen

AP student + dying = AP studying.

AP season is upon us again. As everyone's Facebook statuses turn to "Studying at Borders - anyone want to help me review?" I sigh and head to the local library to do my own bit of studying.

AP (Advance Placement) tests are three hours long, doled out by the College Board, and are happening for a two-week period nationwide. They are graded on a 5-point scale with 3 and above set as a passing grade.

As with almost all tests, students don't study until the very last minute. As I sit here, writing this column, my friends are instant messaging me frantically, all eager to rant about their AP woes. The mildest of these messages start off with, "ARRRGH, I HATE THE (insert AP test of choice)." Why do teens purposely put themselves through this obviously painful process? From what I gather in a very informal study of my friends, most people take it for one reason: AP classes and tests look good on the college application.

AP classes, offered at all schools in this district, dedicate their courses to the preparation of the tests in May. However, this does not mean that students do not study outside of class. On the contrary, some find it more helpful to study on their own than to go to class. Although AP classes are taught by technically qualified teachers who base their coursework on the AP rigor, students find themselves not only having to review past concepts, but also learn new ones on their own, right before the test. (All the students I talked to asked to remain anonymous in order to stay in the good graces of their teachers.)

"Sometimes, material is just glossed over because teachers find it hard to teach all the topics before the test," a senior at Monte Vista says. "For one of the AP classes last year, we barely touched on WWII - the teacher said it was 'unimportant.'"

"I had to learn the material myself," another senior in the school district told me. "A week before the AP test, I just felt like I had learned absolutely nothing, so I just went to the bookstore and read through the AP Environmental prep book instead of going to class."

Of course, though there are some terrible AP classes out there, not all of them are bad and leave students unprepared. I didn't study outside of class for my AP English Language and Composition exam, but went into the test feeling fully ready. My teacher, Mrs. Buckley, even gave us juice-boxes and breakfast the morning of the test. She couldn't have prepared us better.

When it comes to AP tests, high-achieving students don't leave anything to luck. While the ones who got good teachers thank their lucky stars, the ones who didn't don't waste any time pulling all-nighters to study. Despite the pressure before the exam and the varying quality of teachers, growing numbers of students are clamoring to take APs.

A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational research and advocacy organization, found a sharp growth in the AP program's popularity. The number of high school students who took at least one college-level AP course increased by 45 percent, from 1.1 million to 1.6 million in the last four years. The number of AP exams those students took - with hopes, in part, of gaining exemption from some college class work, depending on how well they scored - increased by 50 percent, to 2.7 million.

When teachers were asked to explain the growing popularity of the AP program, 90 percent attributed it largely to "more students who want their college applications to look better."

Undoubtedly, the college process is becoming more and more selective. Some schools like Stanford and Harvard called the 2009 college admissions season the most competitive in their school's history. As a result, students find that they have to overload their time with work just to gain a slight competitive edge over their peers. But just because more students are entering the AP program does not mean the program is getting better. The standards of the AP classes vary drastically - some are extremely difficult while some are snooze-worthy, some prepare you for the test while some just are a waste of time. The AP Program at our schools should do what it promises - prepare students for the test. Otherwise, maybe it's just more helpful to give students a free prep-book and send them home to study.

Maria Shen, reporting on Generation Y, is a senior at Monte Vista High School. She founded Contra Costa County's Young Bohemians creative writing club and is editor of Voicebox, a literary magazine. E-mail her at