An Advanced (and Controversial) Topic: The AT Course Experience… So Far

AT: Advanced Topic. AP: Advanced Placement. These two types of advanced courses have been causing something of a stir in the SAS high school world as we close out the semester. Opinions range from approval to outrage regarding the further addition of AT courses to the course selection manual, with more than a few parents and students expressing displeasure at the thought of AP courses being replaced by supposed AT counterparts.

AT, AP, What?

For those unfamiliar with AT and AP courses, here’s a brief run-down of both.

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The AP is administered by the CollegeBoard, while AT courses are specially designed by SAS teachers.

Advanced Placement, or “AP,” courses are advertised as college-level courses to be taken by high-achieving high school students. AP courses are given curriculum by the CollegeBoard, a US-based not-for-profit that also administers the SAT. In May, at the end of the AP course, students may register to take the corresponding AP exam, and depending on the result of these standardized AP tests sent out by College Board, students who take them may be eligible for college credits and higher placement in university. In addition, some universities in the United Kingdom require AP exams to be taken before applying.

Advanced Topic, or “AT” courses, are also meant to be challenging and rigorous courses, but without the CollegeBoard backing or well-known name of “AP.” AT courses are developed with the help of a corresponding university professor in specific topics and are more project-based than exam-focused. However, concerns about the AT program have also arisen and include whether or not universities recognize the rigor of AT courses and the benefits of taking an AP exam. AT courses have just been introduced to SAS this year and are poised to become even more of a presence in the future, with a proposed phasing out of AP courses and gradual overtake of AT ones.

The Experience

This past year, SAS offered a couple AT courses: AT Writing Seminar, AT Chinese: History, and AT Performing Arts, to name a few. However, this article only focuses on two of those AT courses: AT Writing Seminar and AT Performing Arts.  AT Writing Seminar focused on developing creative writing skills and culminated in a self-published anthology designed, written, and publicized by the students themselves.  AT Performing Arts was a course that combined students from all walks of performance, from dancers to flutists, and met from 7:30 to 8:30 am on Friday mornings. Students participated in collaborative performances, online courses, and honed their performing skills. The course culminated in the final HS Dance Show for dancers and in a self-programmed, 30-minute recital for musicians.

For those who have specialized interest, AT courses can provide a chance to focus and delve deeply into specific material, something that the broader AP courses are often lacking. Senior Jamie Uy, who is passionate about English and writing, says she “chose AT Writing Seminar for the deep dive it promised into the creative writing process and for the flexibility and time it offered me to explore.” In her words, “AT Writing Seminar was the kind of course I had dreamed of taking ever since I was young, but always thought would be available to me only in college. A year of intensive reading, writing, editing, workshopping, discussing, pondering, and breathing creative writing—in a classroom where everyone is passionate about the literary arts?” Such a chance was like a dream come true.

This year, Uy was also a student of the AP Literature and Composition course, where students focus on analyzing works of English literature, and she notes that the two courses were “wildly different” in terms of material, despite both being college-level English courses: “AP Lit revolves around analysis of creative writing, whereas AT Writing Seminar revolves around production of creative writing.” When asked to compare the two, Uy stated that the class environment made the biggest difference. “AP Lit was more rigid, the instructional pace was far more fast-paced, and of course, our culminating assessment was the AP Exam. In contrast, ATWS was more open-ended, the instructional pace allowed for more student need-responsiveness, and our culminating assessment was the short story anthology we published,” she stated, and that there was good and bad to both experiences.

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AT Writing Seminar’s self-published anthology.

Another AT Writing Seminar student, senior Rebecca Dai, also had a favorable experience with the AT course. From her perspective, a considerable drawback to the AP courses is that “students are sometimes very rushed to complete their course materials… instead of improving [their] skills and exploring [their] potential.” AT Writing Seminar allowed her to dive into her interest in creative writing and learn about crafting stories at an advanced level.

On a different note, seniors Angela Lee and Sunita Srivatsan experienced a different Advanced Topic course this year: AT Performing Arts.  Lee appreciated that AT Performing Arts provided “a good opportunity to learn about music holistically” with music theory, history, and performance being key parts of the coursework. For Lee, there were no other similar classes to take: Wind Ensemble, one of SAS’s ensemble’s, doesn’t focus on music theory or history, and AP Music Theory has been discontinued for the past year. Srivatsan expressed interest in the course because it provided a chance to further her music studies will also playing in Wind Ensemble. Similarly, Lee states that she didn’t have to make a choice between challenging music-related courses and AT, as she could “play in Wind Ensemble and learn more about music [in AT].”

The AT vs. AP Debate

As for concerns regarding the switch from AP to AT courses, these current AT students believe in a balance between both. Dai believes that it would be better for SAS to only “offer AT courses and not get rid of AP courses” for the sake of students applying to the United Kingdom, where high AP exam scores are often required. While students can take the AP exams on their own without the AP course, they would have to study the material without the aid of an AP-specific curriculum or classroom experience. Similarly, Lee also believes that AT classes shouldn’t fully replace AP courses, since AP’s are a “more well-established and known path in high school.” However, she does support it as an option for those who would want to delve deeply into a specific topic of interest.

Srivatsan admits that “ATs definitely allow a lot more creative freedom… because less time is taken on standardized course material, more time can be taken for students to actually apply skills and create ‘products’ of their own,” like the recitals for Performing Arts students and anthology for AT Writing Seminar. However, AT’s don’t have the reputation or history of AP courses, and it can be unclear what each class covers: since AT Performing Arts was in its first year, “there were times when students…. could not expect what would be due next and when — something that is quite hard to work around for busy high schoolers.”

Senior Angela Lee plays the flute for her AT Performing Arts Senior Recital.

Uy is a strong supporter of AT courses, stating that “AT courses—if rolled out in tandem with strong college-level survey courses—can pave the way for a path of personalised, passionate study that is remarkably focused for a high school junior or senior. Because AT courses are developed in-house at SAS in collaboration with college professors, AT also has the potential to break ground by offering robust programs unique to SAS.” From her experience, she states that “if taken together, [AT and AP courses] complement each other quite well” and can ameliorate the weaknesses of both. Srivatsan has a similar perspective: AT’s that are used to “fill gaps in existing AP courses” can provide “additional creative freedom” — however, she does appreciate the concerns about AT courses wholly replacing AP ones, especially so quickly.

For all intents and purposes, AT courses have incredible potential and great strengths for the focused student. The opportunity to truly hone one’s skills in a particular subject is a fantastic one. However, this remains the issue: many students don’t quite know what subject strikes their fancy. Taking an AP course allows for a greater amount of breadth, as well as more recognition from colleges worldwide, and provides a way for students to express interest without having to dive off the deep end right away.

Author: Zoe Ong

Zoe Ong is a senior and first-year reporter for The Eye. Originally from Irvine, California, this is her ninth year at SAS. She enjoys listening to different kinds of music (especially jazz), exploring local restaurants, and always saves room for dessert. Her hobbies include playing trombone, reading short stories and answering emails sent to

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