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Articles / Applying to College / How Does Music Compare to AP Classes?

Jan. 10, 2011

How Does Music Compare to AP Classes?

Question: When considering a student's transcript for admission, how does participating in music compare to AP courses? Most students who participate in high school music ensembles have done so since 5/6th grade - a sure sign of commitment. There have been many studies showing the value and benefits of studying music. So my question is, should a student take more AP courses in high school instead of music or is music an equal when being considered for admission?

You don't have to sell me on the benefits of music ... and of the arts in general. But, although most college admission officials won't refute these benefits either, when it comes to making tough admission decisions they tend to speak with forked tongues. That is, music definitely takes a back seat to the tougher “academic” classes. This is especially true at the hyper-competitive colleges and less so as one travels down the selectivity food chain.


One of my many gripes about the crazy admission process is that students are told to follow their "passions," but if this means that the student is taking music theory instead of physics or has selected ceramics over calculus, then the choice could have a negative impact on admission outcomes.

Although musical pursuits are always considered worthwhile, unless those achievements are on a nearly world-class level or are unique in some other way, then the student who is applying to the Ivies and their ilk won't stand out in the crowd. Example: One day I went to an information session at Amherst College. The room was crowded with prospective students and their parents -- so much so that even the radiators were serving as seats. The staff member in charge asked each student for a brief introduction. The first student began with, "Hi, I'm Ashley Andrews. I'm from Lansing, Michigan, and I play viola.” The next followed suit by saying, "I'm Seth Hill. I come from Atlanta, Georgia, and I play alto sax ..." Around the room we went, and I swear that every kid there played some instrument! And I suspect that many of their resumes will boast of holding spots in regional or state orchestras or of singing in select choirs or madrigal or a cappella groups. Thus, with so many bright kids doing so much with music, it becomes very hard to distinguish oneself in this arena.

If I ruled the world, arts participation would "count" as much at admission time as AP classes do. But in this current world, a long-time commitment to music will be viewed as a plus in the admission process but, unless the accomplishments are truly atypical, rarely will they translate into any sort of "hook" at the most selective schools. So I have to vote for the AP classes, even though I’m gagging a bit as I do it.

(posted 1/9/2011)

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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