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AP Courses At Home

By Howard and Susan Richman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #30, 1999.

Preparing for Advanced Placement tests at home.
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Howard and Susan Richman

Guess what's happening here? My daughter Molly is tapping away rapidly at her computer, online once again and at her email. I'm suspecting that maybe she's just writing frivolous chatty notes to her homeschool friends, and wander over to check things out, as it is only 10:00 am and a bit early for goofing off. But as I come up, I see she has King Lear propped up by her monitor, and she's leafing through it to find a scene she wants. Then more typing, more page flipping, some musing. Then she turns to me and lets me know that she's right in the middle of an AP English Literature email discussion, and that it's really helping her see more about the play than she'd ever noticed before. She's radiant and invigorated by it all. I head off to check on her younger sister, secure in knowing Molly is right on track after all.

What is AP?

AP stands for Advanced Placement. Run by the College Board, AP is a program of annual examinations for academically-oriented kids who want to do an introductory-level college course while still in high school - and have a score at the end of the year to prove they really did do it. It lets kids move right into more advanced coursework when they enter college - it let my older son Jesse skip all freshman English composition requirements at the University of Pittsburgh and take Honors Shakespeare as one of his very first courses. It let our second son, Jacob, move right into second year physics and calculus courses in his first semester at Carnegie Mellon University. There's an AP exam to interest any bright kid - you can study English literature, U.S. history, European history, American government, psychology, economics, art history, music theory, French, Spanish, German, Latin, physics, chemistry, biology, calculus, statistics, and more. By scoring well on AP exams - and the exams all include both multiple-choice questions and essays or 'free-response' questions - student can demonstrate to a college that they really have mastered the coursework.

Why Take AP?

I can see four main reasons why homeschoolers should consider taking AP courses and exams:

If homeschoolers take and pass enough of them, they can sometimes skip a semester of college. That's what happened to homeschooler Matthew Hall. He advanced to sophomore status right after his first semester at Asbury College because he had passed AP Chemistry (earning 8 credits), AP U.S. History (worth 6 credits), and AP Calculus (netting 4 credits) while studying at home during his high school years.

These courses can prepare students for college writing assignments. For example, one homeschooled girl told me that her Advanced Placement English Language and Composition course, taken over the Internet from Mrs. Barbara Young through PA Homeschoolers, taught her how to write essays on demand: "I had a hard time getting started at the beginning of the year because I couldn't think of topics to write about. But once I realized it wasn't important what I wrote about, just how I wrote it, I started to take off."

Colleges, no surprise, are anxious to enroll the best students, and if you can show you've taken the most difficult courses available it's a sure sign that you're worth taking a second look at. Having a couple of AP courses on your senior year transcript makes a student much more attractive to colleges. I suspect that one reason a homeschooler I know received a complete scholarship to Virginia Military Institute was because he was taking three AP courses (English, Calculus, and European history) during his senior year. They knew this boy was not afraid of a real challenge - and he was even well-rounded to boot.

Homeschoolers who score well on AP exams before their senior year (the scores are not available until July, which is too late to help seniors) often get scholarship offers from colleges. Where some colleges don't always know what to make of a homeschooler's grades issued by mom or dad, they all know what AP grades mean. Our son Jesse's top score with AP U.S. History during his junior year probably helped him get his complete scholarship when he applied to college the next year.

Time Commitment

When you do plan an AP course, keep in mind that it's a big time commitment. Few students score well unless they devote a minimum of 5 hours per week to the course, and most courses take 10 or more hours per week. So don't just pile an AP course onto an already heavy schedule. Several students that I know have tried to prepare for several AP exams at the same time that they were taking several community college courses, and something had to give. Since they were actually meeting with their community college course teachers, the AP courses were put on the back burner and the students just weren't ready to do well on the exam.

Studying for the AP Exam On Your Own

Many homeschoolers study for AP exams on their own without using an Internet course or an outside teacher or class. It can be done, especially with a very self-motivated student who can set the needed study schedule and stick to it. There are lots of good helps available; Barrons publishes some very good guides to the AP exams (available at most book stores and over the Internet from www.pahomeschoolers.com). These can point out what type of work you need to do over the whole year, even suggesting texts and other resources. Our oldest son, Jesse, used the Barrons' guide to the U.S. History exam as a help, and practiced for the exam by regularly writing essays for the sample questions posed in the guide. Also there are CD-ROMs, course descriptions, and sample questions available from the College Board at their website at www.collegeboard.org. Don't miss this website if you are serious about AP.

Studying with an Internet Course

Afraid you might not really know how to structure an AP course on your own, or just want your student to work with another teacher - but still be at home? There are now at least four sources of AP Internet courses available to homeschooled students. These courses usually include teachers who can answer students questions, give them feedback on their essays and problem solving approaches, and keep them on-track to cover all of the course material in time for the exam. The best of the courses feature much interaction between participating students. You can read all about these courses at their Internet sites - check out PA Homeschoolers at www.pahomeschoolers.com, APEX at www.apexlearning.com, Stanford University's Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY) courses at www-epgy.stanford.edu, or or Scholars Online Academy at www.islas.org. The PA Homeschoolers and SOLA courses are the least expensive and only available to homeschoolers, while the APEX and EPGY courses are available to both school students and homeschoolers.

EDIT: The College Board has also released a new area specifically for AP students, at APstudent.collegeboard.org.

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