By Patricia O’Keefe, MBA, IECA (Shanghai)

Recently, admissions representatives from Pomona (a liberal arts college) and the University of Southern California (USC) joined Collegewise at the 2018 IECA Fall Conference to discuss how many AP classes are enough to get into a highly selective university or liberal arts college. Is it 5? Maybe 10? How about 20? As representatives from U.S. News & World Report’s Top 25, (ranked 5 and 21 respectively) with acceptance rates as low as 8.1%, surely, they would know the answer.

The audience leaned in with anticipation. The statistics flashed on the screen: between 2015–2018, more than 54,000 students had taken as many as 10 AP exams, 1,793 students had taken 15, and 6 brave students had taken as many as 24. The audience of IECs gasped. When did those students sleep?

Assistant Dean of USC admissions, Becky Chassin, sighed as she illustrated to the audience that students do not need to take 24 AP exams. Neither AP classes nor SAT courses are valid extra activities. “Yes, we want to see AP classes, but we also want to see students develop interests and talents outside of the classroom,” she said.” Why? USC doesn’t want every single student in the library 24/7. They have a marching band that needs tuba players. They have an orchestra that needs French horn musicians, and they have foreign language teachers who want students interested in Hebrew or Farsi. They need students who are gifted in animation and digital arts and curious about American pop culture. In essence, USC, just like any other college, needs a student body with a broad range of individual talents, and who have great passion for talents beyond a test.”

AP: What’s the Magic Number?

As independent educational consultants (IECs) who work with ambitious students, you likely have students who will think: Yes, that’s fine, but what is the magic number of AP classes? How many and which AP classes should I be taking to get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale?” The answer is contextual. As admission officers love to say, it depends. It depends on the student’s high school. If a school offers 20 AP courses but students are only allowed to take a maximum of 2 AP classes sophomore year and 8 AP classes in total junior and senior year, then admission officers will only expect a student to enroll in 10 AP courses. They don’t expect any more. If a student takes less, that’s fine too. But they will give a second look to the students who took the most challenging level of classes and excelled with an unweighted GPA of 3.95/4.0.

For example, if a student is a highly ranked competitive sailor who races in regattas across the nation, has taken 8 AP courses, has a 1500+ on the SAT, and an unweighted GPA of 3.95–4.0, highly selective colleges will understand that the applicant is capable of their level of academics and collegiate pressure. But that student will look like 80% of their applicant pool—obviously capable of handling the collegiate workload. What makes her stand out? In this case, her unique sailing capability. For example, in, Yale University coach, Zach Leonard said: “Title IX is a really big deal for sailing. Most of our programs owe their existence to Title IX. If you need a bigger all-up crew weight and don’t have at least one woman in every boat, you’re going to have Title IX problems.” Guess what Yale needs? Competitive women sailors.

So, what is the magic number of AP classes? Spoiler alert: Arun Ponnusamy, chief academic officer, Collegewise, pointed out that there is no magic number. Rather, we should ask whether both sailing (or any other passionately pursued activity) and studying are equally enduring passions and which colleges are the right fit. The message to students is find your passion, find your goals in life, then find the right college to serve your needs.

“If a student asks whether he can take AP Environmental Science instead of AP Cal BC,” said Ponnusamy, “often he is really saying that AP Calc BC is too hard, and he’d like to take an easier class.” In that case, maybe MIT isn’t the right fit. But if a student took all the math classes her school had to offer, earned a breezy 4.0, and loved math classes so much she continued to take higher advanced math outside of school, then MIT would see a math buff capable of the work load.

Remember, life in college is not going to get easier, it’s going to get harder. If a student can’t handle a rigorous course load in high school, then he or she shouldn’t be looking at the top 25 per USNWR. So, encourage students aiming for highly selective schools to test themselves—push themselves—and take the hardest level of classes they can. Tell them to take their SAT or ACT classes very seriously. They should strive for 1500+ and a 3.95/4.0 unweighted GPA, and if they succeed, great! But that will only get their application past first base. Finding and excelling at a talent will help their applications get a second look if the college to which they are applying needs a student with that talent.

Letters of Recommendation

Both the Pomona College and USC admissions officers mentioned the importance of letters of recommendation. They said that they look for applicants to be great team players and can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be generous to classmates. For example, if a high school counselor writes: “Tim prefers to work on his own,” it’s code for “Tim isn’t a team player.” That is a death-knell. Students who are incredibly intelligent help those who aren’t.

Let’s take Sasha who got into Columbia for example. She had a 4.0 and strong SAT scores, but so did thousands of other students. What set her apart according to the Columbia admission rep? Her high school counselor wrote that even though the student was very popular, she took the time to befriend a new student from the Middle East who was a bit of an outcast. That small act of kindness to one scared student in a sea of classmates who looked at the foreign student with disinterest tipped the scales for the Columbia admissions team. The message is loud and clear. Even if you have a 4.0 and 1600, if you are not a team player with fantastic supporting letters of recommendation, you’re out.

More Than Academics

In summary, IECs should help students targeting Ivies and the sort understand that they should get out of their comfort zones, respect others, be open and welcoming to diversity, and help the underdog. Get all As. Take SAT classes seriously. Take as many AP classes as your school allows and excel or demonstrate a unique talent. Help them understand that they do not need to give up a unique talent for the sake of taking an extra AP class online because the difference between eight and nine AP classes is not great. But to a sailing coach who needs sailors, if you raced and placed in national regattas for the last four years; you’re talented; and you’re a kind-hearted, giving student with 4.0 academics, then that combination might make all the difference in the world.

Author’s note: For more information on educating students about the importance of concern for others and the common good, check out Harvard’s Making Caring Common at: A personal thank you to Arun Ponnusamy for presenting a very important message to all.