Note: you can check out my previous post "The Benefits of College Credits in High School" if you're interested in my general thoughts on AP (Advanced Placement) courses, and other college-level credit options for high school students.
I credit my AP History and Literature classes not only with my current employment, but also with the successful completion of my undergraduate and master’s theses; several internships; my ability to multi-task while in college; my growing success in fiction writing; and the creation of this blog.
Those AP classes taught me how to write. Better than that, they taught me how to write fast.
My senior year of high school saw me writing practice essays for the AP US History and AP Lit exams about twice a week. They were timed and high-pressure: a room full of my fellow students all desperately scribbling down as much information as possible based on whatever that day’s question happened to be. We were taught how to build a simple and reasonable argument to answer the question. We were advised to bring in details we knew well and to make reasonable attempts to address those parts of the question we didn’t know as well. We learned that the draft you wrote in 45 minutes was the only draft that mattered.
I can’t tell you how much this has mattered in my life. I can’t even come close.
I only sat a couple of in-class exams in college. By my sophomore year I generally had long essay assignments instead of traditional tests for finals. The pressure was off, and my anxieties about poor handwriting and a serious anxiety about my spelling abilities was lifted from my mind. I could take all the time I wanted to write those college essays: days or weeks even. Months, in the case of my thesis.
But I didn’t. I continued to treat all writing projects like I was sitting in the third row of Mr. Kleeman’s class, desperately scribbling down some analogy between Catch-22 and Fahrenheit 451.
All finished essays begin as drafts. Because of what I learned in those high school classes, I see no reason that any first draft should take more than a couple of hours to write (depending on length, of course). Subsequent edits, additions, and re-writes might take hours or days on top of that. But if you’ve got the basic information in your head and have given thought to how you’ll structure your argument, I see no reason why a first draft should be anything other than the semi-frantic race to get the words on the page before that timer goes off and the rest of your life resumes.
And as I said before, this applies well beyond the college classroom.
Let’s take a simple example first: blogging. For four years I was a student blogger for the University of Oregon. I was paid a flat rate to write two 500-word blogs about my experiences as a student each week. That means two well-crafted stories to turn in every Monday morning. I took it on because I thought it would be interesting (it was); that I would learn useful skills (I did); and that I would develop an online portfolio demonstrating my writing on a wide variety of subjects (I have). I was motivated to write the best blogs possible, both as a matter of personal pride and because that should always be the goal when working on any project. But the pay was per blog, and therefore the incentive was to write as well and quickly as possible, to then let the first draft sit for a day or so, and then turn it in for publishing once the edits had been made.
I honed my writing and editing skills by doing that blog. I use those same skills today for my own projects. I waste no time faffing about (as they say here in Ireland), tentatively picking through different ideas or wondering how to start the next sentence. When I start writing, it’s GO, GO, GO! just like it was when I sat the AP exams. Get it done as well and as quickly as you possibly can. Check to see that you’ve done your best, and hand it in.
How this translates to a “real world” job
My AP classes trained me to be a fast and competent writer. It turns out that the working world has all kinds of uses for fast and competent writers. In the past couple of years, I have taken on several interesting freelance jobs that involved my synthesizing a huge amount of information down into a single short article written in plain and approachable English. That’s what you learn in an AP class. It turns out there are all kinds of jobs I never knew existed when I was in high school which demand these very skills:
- Research assistant
- Blogger/website writer
These jobs are versatile and applicable across industry and geography, from work with NGO’s and government to businesses, academics, online publications, and a ton of creative outlets as well. And that’s in addition to the baseline and more conventional jobs that favor good writers:
- Creative writer/author
- Public speaker
- Grassroots organizer
What you learn about writing in high school is how to take a large amount of information and turn it into a shorter version in your own words. In college, you learn how to turn that information into an argument, and how to perform your own research to test and advance the information around you.
In the “real world” outside of school, these same skills are used in a million different ways by everyone.
My current “day job” is as a writer/researcher for a production studio in Dublin. We mainly work for museums and visitor centers around the UK and Ireland, creating touchscreen displays, historical films, and apps. I don’t know how to code, and I can’t do any of the cool video animation that happens upstairs. But I can write scripts. I can tell stories. I can take 500 years of history and put the key points on a single sheet of paper.
When I interviewed for this job, I didn’t mention the lectures from Mrs. Gerlich about the Revolutionary War. I didn’t tell them about my ultimate AP score or how many college credits that gave me. What I told them was that I was an excellent writer, and could hand over high-quality and well-researched pieces of writing to them on a quick schedule. I told them I am a creative problem-solver and that I work well under pressure.
All this is true. Maybe it always was. But I know for sure that I learned this stuff in AP.
For more about AP classes, check out "The Benefits of College Credits in High School." You might also be interested in "Inventing and Internship: My Journalism Case Study" and "On Starting Over: My Belfast Case Study."
Did you take AP (or other college credit classes)? What has this meant for you since? Do you have other examples of things you learned in high school that have helped you in your life since then? Please share examples here!