Preparing for College

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)