by Linda L. Esterson

Today, the college admissions process is not strictly dictated by a solid grade point average and a mix of extracurricular activities. Many students advance their applications with college level coursework and even earn college credits to set themselves apart from the sometimes thousands of fellow applicants in front of admissions counselors at their schools of choice.

Nick Leahy, the valedictorian of the Winters Mills High School class of 2017, enrolls as a freshman at the University of Maryland this fall with as many as 36 credits.

The College Board, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1900 to expand access to higher education, administers Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Today, the organization includes 6,000 member educational institutions. On its website, the College Board states that it helps more than 7 million students “prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success — including the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the Advanced Placement Program.”

The AP program entitles students who enroll in an AP class and take a completion exam the opportunity to receive college credit based on their exam score and the credit acceptance rules of the institution they will attend. Classes are offered in high schools throughout the county and the particular offerings vary by school.

Leahy enrolled in a total of nine AP courses during his high school career, including AP literature and AP language.

His classmate Julia Smith, also enrolled in AP courses during high school, including AP U.S. history, AP world history, AP psychology, and two AP calculus courses.

“They’re hard,” says Smith, who also will attend the University of Maryland this fall. “They look good on the transcript if you try them. I just wanted to work and be prepared for the workload in college.”

As Smith notes, students show colleges a commitment to working hard by enrolling in rigorous coursework in high school.

“You’re learning to learn,” Smith adds. “In high school, you’re learning to work hard. Next year, I don’t want to be shell-shocked by the workload. I have to be prepared for the crazy amount of work I’m going to have.”

Choosing AP courses proves impressive to college admissions counselors.

“AP has consistent standards in how it’s taught,” says Florence Hines, vice president for admissions at McDaniel College. “You know what you’re getting when you see it on a transcript. It’s an excellent measure of high school rigor and college prep coursework.”

In addition, Hines looks for honors courses and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, which also are offered in high schools across the country. Like the College Board, the IB, founded in 1968, is a non-profit organization offering rigorous programs to guide the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world, according to its website.

Enrollment in AP or IB coursework shows student initiative, responsiveness and the ability to “go the extra mile,” Hines says.

But passing an AP or IB exam does not guarantee college credit, Hines notes. Students must investigate to see if their score is high enough to receive college credit at their institution of choice. Some schools, also, only award elective credit or credit only if the course relates to others they will take during their college careers. Admissions counselors can help students with high school scheduling decisions based on their acceptance rules.

Leahy and classmate Nina Mitzelfelt also boosted their transcripts by leaving school early and enrolling at Carroll Community College. As part of the Dual Enrollment Program, Mitzelfelt enrolled in English 101, and Leahy studied entry level biology, financial literacy, abnormal psychology, and sociology courses. As he anticipates a pre-med major, the credits will allow him to lighten his load or even free up time for an internship before graduating. He would entertain the idea of graduating early, he says.

“I went to Carroll Community College to make myself more appealing on the college application,” Leahy says. “You can’t set yourself apart by goofing off. You can’t shoot for the stars if you’re not really fully committed all four years.”

Adds Mitzelfelt, “It was a good experience because the work was more rigorous. Everything was faster-paced and helped me get prepared for college and develop good study habits.”

According to Candace Edwards, senior director of enrollment development at Carroll Community College, enrolling in community college classes builds confidence and shows students they can be successful when they begin college full time. High school students receive a 25 percent tuition discount on up to four classes when they enroll at Carroll Community College. Students must apply for admission, and meet placement, grade point average and attendance requirements.

“Being in a college class and transitioning into college-level coursework while still in high school [helps students] understand the rigor and pace and differences between college and high school,” Edwards says. “It also enables students to choose a class they want to try, maybe test out a possible pathway area for college, which can help them decide what to study.”

Edwards recommends that students be strong in their studies to be eligible to be released early to take classes, have access to transportation and commit to up to 12 hours per week for a three-credit class.

Instead of AP or IB classes, Scott Sainz chose dual enrollment to advance his transcript. The 2016 North Carroll High School graduate enrolled concurrently beginning in his junior year and received high school and college credit for taking English and math courses at Carroll Community College. During his the second semester of his senior year, he received a waiver to enroll at Carroll full time. By the time he graduated, he had earned 37 college credits, all through studies at Carroll Community College. This fall, after a year full time at the community college, he will attend UMBC, entering as junior after earning 61 credits, all of which transferred. He intends to major in theater design and technology.

The youngest of four children, Sainz chose community college over AP classes after learning through his siblings’ experiences. One brother earned AP credits, but some did not transfer. Another brother struggled with AP classes and did not find the experience positive.

Originally, Sainz expected to participate in the dual enrollment program during high school and then enroll in a four-year program, but he opted to continue for another year to earn an associate’s degree in general studies. He also valued the financial savings, realizing his school loan would only be for two years, instead of three.

Sainz suggests planning out coursework during the sophomore year of high school to get the most out of the opportunity. The only downside, he says, was losing touch with friends his last high school semester.

“In my mind, it’s a clear winner,” he says of dual enrollment. “I don’t understand why people would take AP classes when they can leave school early and earn college credit.”

Shaunti Taylor, school counseling department chair at Liberty High School in Eldersburg, says that both AP and dual enrollment coursework prepare students for the rigor of college and gives them the opportunity to experience a college environment. The choice, she says, is a personal decision.

“Both offer a lot of value,” she explains. “AP courses offer a lot of value – they follow a national curriculum of a college course taught by a high school teacher. With dual enrollment, we’re lucky in Carroll County to have a great community college in our backyard. It gives students the ability to take courses the high school doesn’t offer, satisfy graduation requirements and earn college credit.”

Taylor says students can certainly opt for AP and dual enrollment, both of which help to boost the high school GPA.  Students, however, must consider their extracurricular activities, i.e. sports, clubs and part-time jobs, to be sure they have the time to dedicate to these courses.

“All of that goes into the conversation with students and parents to make the best decision,” she says.

At McDaniel, 74 percent of freshmen enrolling in 2017 have taken AP, IB and/or dual-enrollment courses; 70 percent of students with dual-enrollment courses also took AP classes.