School

The Biggest Mistake I See College Freshmen Make

Don’t use that AP credit! At least, not that way.

An overhead view of a student sitting on the ground working on a laptop with books around him.
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This fall, thanks to receiving a high score on the Advanced Placement English Language and Composition exam, hundreds of thousands of incoming freshmen are going to dodge their college or university’s first-year writing requirement.

The students are psyched because they get credit toward graduation, and the chance to avoid a course that the vast majority of them view with little to any enthusiasm.

The person paying the tuition—be that the student or the student’s family—is psyched because, again, credit toward graduation.

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The College Board, the entity that administers the Advanced Placement exams (along with the SAT et al.) is psyched because those exams make up a portion of their billion dollars per year of revenue.

Despite all this good cheer, I come to tell one and all that this is a bad thing and that everyone should be taking their college or university’s first-year writing course.

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I should come clean that I have almost 20 years of experience teaching college writing and am the author of a course text (The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing) used in first-year writing classrooms, so my bias on the importance of this course is significant.

I also cannot promise that every single first-year writing course is good. These classes are often under-resourced and staffed by graduate students or contingent faculty—which is what I was, during my time teaching—who are underpaid and overworked. Colleges would be well-served to dedicate much more attention and resources to the teaching of first-year writing. This would help with retention, matriculation, and even student mental health and overall well-being.

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That said, my experience teaching first-year writing at five different institutions and observing the work at dozens of others has convinced me that even though there’s always room for improvement, lots of good things happen in the first-year writing classroom.

It’s important to recognize that the AP exam isn’t a marker of supposed college readiness, like the College Board’s signature product, the SAT. As Annie Abrams, author of the forthcoming book Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students, told me in an interview, “From the outset, the AP program was not intended to be preparation for college, but something like college itself.”

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But because the exam does not assess the kind of writing that students are expected to do in college contexts, credit derived from a high score is largely meaningless, in terms of what students can do as writers.

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The exam is divided into two sections and given over a maximum time period of 3 hours and 15 minutes. Section 1 is multiple choice, further subdivided into two sections. The most important thing to note here is that multiple-choice questions are lousy ways to assess whether a student can produce college-level writing.

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The second most important thing is that the questions themselves are pretty pointless. For example, in the first multiple-choice section, which requires students to draw inferences from short nonfiction texts, a sample question asks, “Which of the following best describes the writer’s exigence in the passage?” followed by five choices, A through E, drawn from the short text.

The key to getting this question correct has much more to do with understanding how the AP exam uses the term exigence—the author’s reason for producing the piece of writing—than anything else. The AP exam tries to pass this off as rhetorical analysis, but it is not, at least not in any way that’s meaningful to college-level work.

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The second section is worse, asking students questions about what sorts of changes might improve the message and impact of a short text. Such questions may ask which word makes for the best transition or which alternative sentence provides the most convincing evidence.

Doing this as a series of multiple-choice questions looking at individual chunks of text, as opposed to what actual writers do—edit a text based on a holistic understanding of its message—is confusing and weird, and again, utterly unlike any kind of activity we would associate with the act of writing.

I wish that I could report that the section that requires students to write is better at testing their writing proficiency, but it may actually be worse. What the AP exam passes off as “writing” is actively damaging. As Abrams says, “The College Board is reinventing what constitutes ‘good writing’ for hundreds of thousands of high school students, despite teachers’ best efforts, and when those students get to college, they may never encounter an alternative experience.”

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The “free response” section has three separate “essays,” testing students on synthesis, rhetorical analysis, and argument. The prompts themselves may seem reasonable. For example, in the synthesis essay, students are provided with a handful of sources and expected to use them as fodder in a thesis-driven essay that articulates the student’s stance on a particular issue. However, the conditions under which the essay is produced have zero relationship to how college-level writing is framed, executed, and assessed.

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If students are using their time in the AP exam session properly, they can spend 40 minutes per essay—far less than they would spend on a first draft in a college writing course, even in a worst-case late-night deadline sprint. There is no time to develop, explore, or refine an idea. There is no chance for feedback and revision, staples of any college writing course, or any writing, period.

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One of the hallmarks of growing sophistication as a writer is seeing the idea you thought you were expressing change in front of your eyes as you are writing. This is high-level critical thinking. This kind of emergent rethinking is an experience that every college-level writer should be familiar with, and if it happens while drafting a response for the AP English Language and Composition exam, it must be ignored because of the time pressure.

The real shame is that the nation’s AP teachers are, I know from speaking to some, trying their best to expose students to the kinds of thinking and writing that will serve them well in college. Unfortunately, the AP exam works against them by being the only thing that counts when it comes to the high stakes of earning college credits. It would be malpractice for those teachers not to prepare students to do well on the test, but the test is truly terrible.

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I talked to Matt, who teaches AP courses at a high school in a Chicago suburb, and who did not want to be fully identified, due to his job. He testified to the way he has to alter his instruction in order to anticipate the kind of assessment that’s coming on the test. “I definitely find myself spending more time teaching kids to write well for the test than to write well,” he said. “For kids who are struggling writers, I find myself having to essentially teach them to hack the FRQ [free response] section. They might not have an authentic voice or engaging approach, but if their essay ticks these boxes, they’ll be fine.”

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These “essays” are then scored in a matter of minutes, utilizing a rubric that privileges the five-paragraph essay, a form so ubiquitous and damaging to the development of student writers I wrote an entire book about it, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.

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Matt scored the exam this past year and describes the process as “having an air of industrialization,” where the graders are required to “calibrate” their scores each morning, and are subject to real-time metrics gauging their speed.

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Essays that adhere to the five-paragraph rubric “scored pretty high,” while those that “meander into making a good argument” score low. Matt told me that very few of the 700-plus essays he scored were “good” writing. Instead, he felt, everyone involved—teachers, students, and scorers—had been “calibrated” to accept that the College Board vision is what counts.

The College Board could take a big step in the right direction by scrapping the Comp exam and going to a portfolio submission that is assessed by an expert, something they already do with AP Art and Design, but this would be expensive and time-consuming to do for the 450,000 or so students who take this exam each year and would undoubtedly cut into the bottom line for the billion-dollar company.

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As things stand, skipping a first-year writing course through use of an AP credit may have a number of negative downstream effects, which will cause ongoing problems during a student’s college career.

A looming practical downside is students missing out on learning college-level research skills. How to access, vet, and integrate reliable sources into academic writing is a core part of any first-year writing course, while also being entirely absent from the AP exam. It’s less likely that instructors in upper division courses will spend significant (or any) time on the basics of interacting with the resources college students are expected to be able to employ.

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Additionally, at schools where first-year writing is a two-semester sequence, and AP credit only applies to the first semester, students may find themselves even further disoriented, even if their core writing skills are strong. The typical college professor is not interested in a five-paragraph essay that fails to develop ideas in depth or show a genuine wrestling with the material.

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To avoid these issues, more and more schools are either rejecting AP credits or not allowing students to opt out of first-year writing, and instead accepting the AP credit as an elective that gives the students credit toward graduation but does not substitute for a required course. For example, Duke University requires every first-year student to take Writing 101, a small special-topic seminar, regardless of AP status.

As significant as the practical, academic concerns are, from my perspective as a longtime instructor of first-year writing, and as someone working to bridge the gap between high school and college writing instruction, the most important part of a first-year writing course is not necessarily the improvement of student writing skills but the encouragement of a shift in the attitudes that students bring toward writing.

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The impetus for Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities was not so much my concern about how well students were writing but was instead my worry about the mindset I detected in the students conscripted into my first-year writing courses.

To them, writing was governed by a series of rules, articulated as a mix of prohibitions and commands, the kinds of mechanical moves that are explicitly favored by standardized assessments, including the AP exam. Students entering my first-year writing class had been producing writing-related imitations that pass muster on an AP exam assessed in minutes by a stranger working on a production quota but do little to inspire either the audience or the author. No wonder they wanted to avoid first-year writing, believing it to be more of the same.

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But it isn’t.

Learning how to write for actual audiences who may be affected by your original ideas can be truly liberatory, and far too many students have never had this opportunity prior to college, ironically because of the kinds of things we ask them to do to prove they are worthy for college.

Humanities majors have been in decline for years, with history, English, and religion down by more than half since the year 2000. Such is the way of the world. If people believe computer science and business majors are the route to a secure future, I’m not going to second-guess their choices.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think at least some humanistic study is a good thing in a college education, regardless of major. A first-year writing course isn’t a panacea, but I have seen it be a boon to the spirits and intellects of students who have gone on to thousands of different futures.

I hate to see anyone miss out on that kind of experience.

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