Panel of Experts

Karl Schellscheidt

SAT Prep Expert

  • BSE, Princeton University '90
  • M.A., Secondary Education Seton Hall University '93
  • J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School '00

Fred Hargadon

Dean of Admission

  • Swarthmore College
  • Stanford University
  • Princeton University

Don Betterton

Financial Aid Expert

  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
  • Certified College Planner
  • Principal, Betterton College Planning

Seamus Malin

Admission Expert

  • Harvard University
    Dir. of Financial Aid
    Asst. Dean of Admission
    International Office Director

AP Classes, Academic Burnout, and the Decline of Writing Skills

Seamus Malin

college admissions expert advice from
Question: Is it better to take AP classes and receive a lower grade than to take easy classes and receive high grades? According to Seamus Malin, who spent years reviewing applicants as a Harvard admissions officer, “it depends”. While that might not be the answer you’re looking for, in today’s podcast with Seamus we’ll cover everything from AP classes, the risks of academic burnout, and the decline of students’ writing skills.

AP Classes, Academic Burnout, and the Decline of Writing Skills (transcript)

Karl Schellscheidt: Hi, I’m Karl Schellscheidt. Welcome to ePrep. I have Seamus Malin in the studio with me today. Seamus is a former administrator of Harvard University. He’s an awesome guy with a wealth of knowledge that he is thankfully sharing with us today.

Seamus, I’ve been asked by many parents over the years, “Should my child take the honors course and risk getting a B or should they take the lower level, a regular course where they’re almost guaranteed the A?” Where’s the balance? Should you take hard classes and risk getting poor grades or should you go with the easy classes and just get high grades? How do admissions people value that situation?

Seamus Malin: It’s a very thorny question because it covers a range of other sort of subliminal issues, and that is the fact that students feel a certain comfort in subjects A, B, and C, but not in D and E; and therefore what sort of pressure should they be putting on themselves for D and E?

The general rule of thumb that I think is still the right piece of advice is that you really should take the most challenging course load that is possible for you to take. That needs some explanation. When I say, “that’s possible for you to take,” I don’t mean it’s possible for you to take because the courses are offered in the school. That doesn’t mean that therefore because there are 10 AP courses that you need to take six or seven of them. Wrong. When I say, “that it’s possible for you to take,” I mean possible within the context of your life. What is it that you can accomplish academically and non-academically so that you will be at your best?

I really do think, though, that people who duck the tougher subjects across the board are going to be at a disadvantage, no question. So you’ve got to go and push yourself to take honors level classes, but not in all five or six subjects, not every year. You need to have a balance within the program. Some courses you’re simply never going to feel completely at home at, and therefore if you decide as you progress through it you’ve only got one more course to go and you’ve done the basics really well, you don’t necessarily have to push yourself into the AP category in that area if it’s not something that really resonates with you.

But you certainly should be going after a substantial load of courses that are going to be the most challenging available. Most important is to be sure that there’s a balance there between those kinds of challenging courses that push you and then some others that are requirements of the school necessarily, but don’t demand of you the level of excellence that are going to resonate in the university level.

So it’s a long-winded, somewhat waffling answer which says basically yes, go for challenge, but be sure the challenge is sane.

Karl Schellscheidt: And I just want to add my own little personal perspective on this. I’ve tutored a lot of kids over the years and every year I get a few kids who I actually feel pretty bad for. I feel like they’re taking six AP classes and they’re doing this and they’re doing that and they are just completely consumed by work. And I’m not just talking about from Monday through Friday, I’m talking about every weekend, every holiday they have, every vacation it seems like they have projects to do and things to do and they’re just kind of resume building. They’re just kind of building a resume and they’re not thinking about anything else.

And sometimes when I get these kids I feel like saying, “Take a break. Go see a movie tonight. You are overdoing it. And I think in a way you’re running the risk of burning yourself out and just losing your interest in learning and education,” because I think if you overdo it, you really do run that risk.

One of my own little personal jokes with parents is when we try to set up tutoring, Friday afternoon is not a great slot. Not too many kids want to get tutored on a Friday afternoon. And so I’ve always told the parents when their schedule is getting tight, “Well I can do something Friday afternoon, but that’s not a real popular slot for kids.” And I wind up getting some kids who, because their schedules are so overloaded that’s the only time they have, Friday afternoon.

And so I wind up spending some of my Friday afternoons tutoring kids who I really wish that I weren’t tutoring in some ways. I almost feel like they would be better off sleeping on a Friday afternoon than taking the lesson from me because they’re already well prepared.

I feel like if you work hard in school and do all the things you’re supposed to, you will be pretty well prepared for a test like the SAT. I think it’s a very appropriate test and I feel like a lot of kids just overdo it. They’re overscheduled. They do too much that’s above and beyond the call of duty. And I agree with you 100 percent that you need to be careful about overdoing it. You need to be careful about over scheduling.

Seamus Malin: You do. And the problem with the college selection end, the students who are doing all these things, they present a file to you that is impressive. In a sense your heart goes out to the kids, as you just said, and you say them, “I wonder if they’ve had a childhood.”

But then you say to yourself, “That’s my value. That’s what I care about. Should I hold that value against these kids in making a decision?” Because whether they’ve been advised poorly or whatever, this is what they’ve done. Now, it’s hard to hold that against them, but in your heart you wish they hadn’t done it. You wish they had smelled the roses a little bit more and enjoyed life a little bit more and decelerate because in fact the burnout issue you talk about does sometimes get postponed to the college years.

And that’s why I’ve become a big advocate for people taking a year off between secondary school and college. Not to sit on the porch or just to play video games, that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s to do something productive and interesting, but at least low key. And I’ve talked to a lot of families who are very scared about that and I try to reassure them saying, “No, if you want to take a year off, you have a place at college x, ask them if they’ll defer you for a year if it’s in your heart because believe me, if you take the year off then, you will hit the ground running and be ready to go and have a fabulous four year career. So what if you’re a year older than the other people. It doesn’t make any difference.” So I’m very keen on that.

Now the only other thing I would say about this, Karl, is this, if you are making a claim in your application that you are passionate about subject x, then it’s going to look very odd if you have not opted for the toughest courses in that topic. If you are a passionate scientist, it’s going to look very odd if you have not pursued the tough courses in physics and chemistry and math and so on. It doesn’t mean you have to be doing really exclusive English literature and so forth; you don’t have to be doing that. If you like and you want to, okay. But if you’re making a claim and it’s a vivid claim, you’ve done summer work and you write independent work, etc., that this is your field, then you better be darn sure that you have opted for the most challenging courses in those areas or your whole case is undermined.

Karl Schellscheidt: Right. Let me just make one last comment. I think we’ve spent a lot of time just now, a few minutes, talking about the kid who might be at risk for burning out, who’s doing too much. And I think we can agree that that student is still the minority.

Seamus Malin: Yeah.

Karl Schellscheidt: And I would say on the other end, where the bigger numbers are, are kids who just clearly aren’t doing enough. I think there’s a very small percent at the top, those kids are risking burnout and doing way too much. And I see the greater numbers as kids who just aren’t doing enough, aren’t really challenging themselves, are graduating from high school, and some I would even say graduating from college, without being able to write well, without knowing grammar, without basic math skills.

And I see that in business where I communicate through email a lot with people. And I get emails from professionals, from marketing people and other business people that are just pathetically wrong, dramatically wrong, and in a way embarrassing. So I just want to throw the caveat out there that while there are some students that are at risk for burning out, I think the greater majority need to push themselves a little bit more. They need to not be afraid to take those classes and really transcend what they are now.

Seamus Malin: That’s right. Yeah, you need the challenge. But you’ve put your finger on another big issue which is the communication issue. I mean, we’re living in the 21st century and it’s the video age. I’m a former English teacher; I love English literature, still keep reading as much as I can. There’s no way around reading. You’ve got to keep reading.

The fact that you watch videos can have in fact quite some interesting challenges in the video world; it’s not just all mindless stuff by any means. But reading enhances writing and the teaching of writing has I think declined in this country, frankly, over the years. And in looking at the kind of essays I used to read in college applications in the 60s and 70s as opposed to the 90s, was dramatic. There just is a real drop off in the ability to express oneself clearly, lucidly, and with tight prose, and there’s a lot of catch-up that needs to be done.

That said, universities have had to adjust. So the writing centers in universities now are some of the most exciting, educational places, for the wrong kinds of reasons perhaps but nonetheless it’s not the end of the world. Students need to take advantage of writing centers because as you say, if you’re going to go into the world of business later on, even though the email world is a whole different lingo, you want to be a good communicator no matter where you are. And if you are two things, a) a good communicator and b) a speaker of a foreign language, you will have some very interesting career options down the road. Those are things that you can directly do something about in the college years even if your secondary schooling has not been as good as you would have liked it to be.

Karl Schellscheidt: Awesome. Thanks so much, Seamus. Just to summarize, we got a little bit off topic and we were talking about whether a B in a hard class was equal to an A in a lesser class. And the answer was, it depends. So I apologize that I let you down, didn’t give you a straightforward answer, but hopefully the conversation that Seamus and I just had will give you some food for thought, will allow you to think about the issues and decide what’s best for you and your child.

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