“From the moment you enter an AP classroom, you’ll notice the difference—in the teacher’s approach to the subject, in the attitude of your classmates, in the way you start to think. In AP classrooms, the focus is not on memorizing facts and figures. Instead you’ll engage in intense discussions, solve problems collaboratively, and learn to write clearly and persuasively.”
This, good readers, is the College Board’s description of the Advanced Placement program’s goals. So it’s really funny to me that so many AP students expend so much energy in pursuit of facts and figures. It’s true that AP classes are more likely to be rigorous and taught by more enthusiastic teachers, which is great. It’s also true that even motivated, talented kids studying under motivated, talented teachers are likely to get distracted from the importance of engaging with the material by the pressure to score a 5 on the test. (Which is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, just that the mania of flashcards and review books that afflicts everyone come April can obscure their reasons for studying the subject in the first place.)
Education matters. Specific subjects matter. Understanding why a subject is relevant matters just as much as the information itself. Earlier this year, I did a presentation on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. It’s a great book: the protagonist’s emotions and thought processes are realistic, the descriptions lengthy and beautiful, the symbols overt but atmospherically fitting. But what’s even more important about it is the fact that it presents the dilemmas of living in Creole society at the end of the 19th century in a tangible manner and can be easily connected to feminist literature (it isn’t that, but it played a notable role in the feminist movement of the 1970s). Chopin’s use of language and method of characterization are wonderful, but the historical context, the implications of the text, and its initial critical reception are the main reasons I care about that stuff.
AP can do an incredibly good job of informing students, and some would argue that it teaches critical thinking and writing skills. But I don’t I buy into that as a measure of intelligence or passion, largely because the emphasis on the test itself limits the amount of thought put into the big picture. IB is a little better about this, but even their attempts to connect course material to real life are a little cheapened in the process of organizing that information into a curriculum. Perhaps that’s unavoidable; I’m not sure. I do know, though, that context is everything, good scores on AP essays are not necessarily indicative of good writing, and even native French speakers sometimes fail AP French.
How To Succeed In AP Without Trying
- Organize your writing as clearly as possible. Be formulaic; that’s what they want.
- Find reasons to remember facts. Whenever I think about the Battle of Stalingrad, a miniature freakout about Shostakovich is not far behind.
- Pick topics you actually enjoy. The tests can be sort of fun, if you do this part right.
- Fill in some bubbles. Write some essays. Forget about it and go play tag.