Getting Ahead (and Abroad) of the University Competition
After applying to the University of Oxford in England, Henry Wendorf, like other final year high school students at Switzerland’s International School of Zug and Luzern, waited anxiously each day for a reply. When his peers began receiving their university admission letters from around the world and his hadn’t arrived yet, the anxiety reached an all-time high.
“As I stressed at the lunch table, I asked my mom to check the mailbox,” Henry recalled. “When she sent back a screenshot of my acceptance, I shouted ‘YES!’ loud enough that the whole school probably heard me.”
Now a freshman at Oxford with his nerve-wracking college application days behind him, Henry credits hard work, discipline and his Advanced Placement (AP) courses with getting into his dream school.
Get with the AP Program
The AP Program is an innovative secondary school suite that includes university-level courses and exams. From arts to sciences to humanities, each AP course is designed to connect directly to a wide variety of university majors and careers. Any secondary school can add AP courses to enhance its curriculum, and students can use their AP scores for global admissions - and often to gain college credit (without even being in college yet).
“The idea that AP scores could be used as college credits was enticing,” says Miranda Zhang, also a University of Oxford student and AP grad originally from Guangzhou, China. “I chose the AP program because I liked that all courses would be taught in English by qualified teachers, providing an interactive environment to practice and improve English. I wanted to be around like-minded students with similar goals.”
Because of her combined AP and SAT exam scores at her high school in China, Zhang even received an unconditional offer from Oxford upon admission, which she says made her life much easier than those of A-Level students, who had to wait for their exam results in August to see if they met Oxford’s conditions or not. Zhang says she was pleasantly surprised to have the opportunity to study subjects like psychology, literature and art history, and that her AP courses helped her decide what she wanted to major in at Oxford.
In order to maximize the benefits of enrolling in AP courses, the College Board helps high school students identify their potential for success in these courses. Based on students’ SAT and PSAT-related assessment scores, The College Board’s AP Potential tool suggests AP Courses to students who are likely to receive a 3 or higher on AP exams. The tool is designed to increase access to AP and to ensure that no student who has the chance of succeeding in AP is overlooked.
As a complement to discipline-specific AP courses, the College Board recently introduced an AP Capstone program that includes AP Seminar and AP Research courses to train and encourage independent thinkers, skilled writers, college-level researchers and effective collaborators. Students typically take AP Seminar in the equivalent to U.S. grades 10 or 11, followed by AP Research.
“Being in an AP program is a privilege many students don’t have,” says Zhang. “I would tell new students to get the most out of it by working hard – and don’t be afraid to try new subjects. Your college self will thank you in the future!”
Catering to Schools and Students
When the College Board approached the Colegio Nueva Granada (CNG) in Bogotá, Colombia four years ago about piloting an AP Capstone, the school was intrigued with the program’s structure and focus. With 1,775 students from 47 different countries, CNG knew that many of them would choose to go to international universities and also likely pursue advanced degrees.
“We needed to strengthen our course offerings in research and writing, both vitally important academic skill sets for our students,” says Dr. Eric H. Habegger, CNG’s School Director for the past eight years. “We believed that the AP Program’s research protocols and seminar methodology strongly reflected what many students would need, while also allowing them to pursue their passions through authentic project-based experiences, which would open many doors for them post-high school.”
For many students, an AP Seminar course can replace an elective class in the last year in high school, which is particularly suited to humanities students (like Zhang). When students move into AP Research for year two, the course can supplant a Grade 12 English course, allowing greater flexibility in academic schedule and choices. This is how the AP Capstone Program is designed, to cater to a broad range of students with an even broader range of interests, and equip each and every one of them with the skills necessary to not only gain admission to their dream university, but to thrive once they’re there.
“We have seen broadened interest with more students captivated by the program and fully grasping the importance of taking a research/writing course such as AP Capstone prior to entering university,” says Dr. Habegger. “They have also heard from our graduates that AP absolutely helped facilitate their entry into highly competitive institutions and prepared them for first-year college success.”
Keeping up with Academic Global Mobility
In 2017, more than 2.7 million students in 150 countries took over 4.9 million AP exams. They sent their scores to more than 4,000 universities in more than 60 countries. Those are some big numbers.
And the numbers are getting bigger – and broader. Trends show that more and more college-bound students are interested in attending universities abroad, and so high schools must cater to what international universities look for in student applications by providing externally-validated learning experiences like AP courses and exams.
“Over the past eight years, we have seen more of our students attend US and overseas universities and fewer remain in Colombia,” says Dr. Habegger. “The shift has been quite dramatic, from approximately 23% attending the US eight years ago to 51% this past year. Among several factors leading to this shift, we believe that our AP program and a near doubling of student participation have resulted in our graduates receiving significantly increased scholarship monies. Those totals over the past four years alone have gone from around $1 million in scholarships and grants to now over $4 million annually.”
As anyone with a university degree reading this can remember, the college application process is far from user friendly – and inconsistent from country to country. Unspoken quirks and cultural norms involved with the application process assume international applicants understand them all. Common measures like AP courses and exams help serve as passports between systems.
“If not for my extraordinary college counselor, I would not have understood the huge differences between what a UK university wants in a personal statement and what a US university wants in an application essay,” says Wendorf.
Through working with his counselor and sharing his experiences with like-minded students, Wendorf says he was able to confidently navigate the intimidating international college application process. And from an admissions perspective, taking AP courses showed universities that Wendorf could handle rigorous first-year coursework.
“Making yourself look competitive for university admission is not just about getting high grades or marks,” says Andrew Arida, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at The University of British Columbia in Canada. “It’s about demonstrating that you can challenge yourself academically. The AP Capstone course shows that you’re learning how to learn, independently defining and pursing your own academic interests.”
Preparing For The Future
“Students who complete the AP Capstone program are far better prepared and fully ready to engage in all types of research at the university level,” says Dr. Habegger. “Many first-year university students lack a strong background in taking rigorous research courses before entering their undergraduate programs. [Our AP graduates] mentioned their AP Capstone experience as one of the most important courses they took in high school.”
And once they – or any student - have been admitted to their dream school, there are still just a few more barriers to overcome.
“At Oxford, I’ve found English food doesn’t live up to the tacos or brisket I had growing up in Texas, but what does?” quips Wendorf. “That said, everything else has surpassed my expectations: I am challenged, forced to grow and Oxford feels like home.”
Dr. Habegger says the AP program fosters true friendships between teachers and students, and he loves to keep in touch with AP graduates that have gone on to international universities. When recent alumni return for summer vacation, his team invites them in to speak with Grade 11 students about their experiences abroad.
“During those conversations, they always mention how valuable their AP courses were in preparing them for college-level courses and the rigorous university study load,” he says. “They also mention how much they miss the relationships they had with their teachers. They look back at their time here at school and realize how much the teachers cared about them not only as students but also as young adults.”
About The College Board
The College Board is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity. Each year, the College Board helps more than seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success — including the SAT and the Advanced Placement Program. The organization also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and schools.