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An Introduction to the AP Capstone Diploma

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The Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum is administered by the College Board and serves as a standardized set of year-long high school classes that are roughly equivalent to a college-level course. Though AP exams have historically involved high levels of memorization and standardization, starting in fall of 2014, this traditional AP course and exam format has begun to adapt in efforts by the College Board to reflect less stringent rote curriculum and a heavier emphasis on critical thinking skills.

The AP Capstone program is at the center of these changes. If you are interested in learning more about the AP Capstone program and how it can prepare you for college-level work, read on for CollegeVine’s Introduction to the AP Capstone Diploma.

What is AP Capstone?

The AP Capstone program is essentially a College Board program that, through a series of two year-long classes, equips students with the independent research, collaborative teamwork, and communication skills that are increasingly valued by colleges. The AP Capstone program prepares students to make logical, evidence-based decisions by researching them deeply and communicating them clearly. Through this program, you will learn to:

  • Analyze topics through multiple lenses to construct meaning or gain understanding
  • Plan and conduct a study or investigation
  • Propose solutions to real-world problem.
  • Plan and produce communication in various forms
  • Collaborate to solve problems
  • Integrate, synthesize, and make cross-curricular connections

The AP Capstone program is comprised of two central courses. During your first year, you will take AP Seminar which emphasizes collaborative problem-solving, critical thinking, and student- led investigation. During the second year, you will take AP Research which takes the skills you developed in AP Seminar and applies them to a prolonged research project for which you develop your own research topic, build an evidence-based argument, and present it through written and oral defense.

Why Should You Enroll in AP Capstone?

Still relatively new, the AP Capstone program does not yet have the mainstream traction of traditional AP coursework. It is not yet widely offered in high schools, nor is it widely accepted by colleges for credit or advanced standing. According the College Board’s AP Program Participation and Performance Data 2016, only 388 high schools offered the Capstone Program courses in 2015-2016, with just 300 colleges accepting AP Research coursework and 500 accepting AP Seminar coursework. For comparison, over 3,000 colleges accept AP English Literature or AP Calculus coursework.

Although the AP Capstone diploma does not guarantee you any advanced standing or admissions advantage, it does, like the International Baccalaureate diploma, signify your commitment to advanced-level coursework and your ability to achieve consistently at high levels through your high school career. It also signifies to colleges that you have pursued skill-based instruction rather than just an a-la-carte offering of subject-specific AP offerings, whether those colleges recognize it for credit or not. The AP Capstone Program is an indication of your dedication to mastering the research, argumentation, and communication skills that are at the core of college readiness and essential for lifelong learning. While it may not set you ahead in terms of advanced standing at the school of your choice, it will definitely help to distinguish you as a serious student in a large pool of applicants.

How Does the AP Capstone Program Work?

Although the AP Seminar and AP Research programs are most often taken as a part of the AP Capstone Diploma Program, they are not only offered to AP Capstone Diploma candidates. Anyone can enroll in these courses as long as their school provides them. Typically students enroll in AP Seminar during their sophomore or junior year, and enroll in AP Research during the following year. You cannot take these courses at the same time, and you must take AP Seminar before you can take AP Research. Students who receive a score of 3 or higher on both courses earn an AP Seminar and Research Certificate™. Students who receive a score of 3 or higher on both courses and on four additional AP Exams of their choosing receive the AP Capstone Diploma™.

Both the AP Seminar and the AP Research classes use the QUEST framework to develop, practice, and hone critical and creative thinking skills while urging students to make connections between various issues and their own lives. The QUEST thinking frameworks include the following:

  • Question and Explore: Questioning begins with an initial exploration of complex topics or issues. Perspectives and questions emerge that spark one’s curiosity, leading to an investigation that challenges and expands the boundaries of one’s current knowledge.
  • Understand and Analyze Arguments: Understanding various perspectives requires contextualizing arguments and evaluating the authors’ claims and lines of reasoning.
  • Evaluate Multiple Perspectives: Evaluating an issue involves considering and evaluating multiple perspectives, both individually and in comparison to one another.
  • Synthesize Ideas: Synthesizing others’ ideas with one’s own may lead to new understandings and is the foundation of a well-reasoned argument that conveys one’s perspective.
  • Team, Transform, and Transmit: Teaming allows one to combine personal strengths and talents with those of others to reach a common goal. Transformation and growth occur upon thoughtful reflection. Transmitting requires the adaptation of one’s message based on audience and context.

In the AP Seminar and AP Research courses, you will use these frameworks to consider and evaluate multiple points of view, develop your own perspective on complex issues and topics, and use inquiry and investigation to guide your thinking.

What Does the AP Seminar Course Involve?

The AP Seminar course will help you to develop and strengthen analytic and inquiry skills by exploring two to four relevant issues chosen by you and/or your teacher. The College Board suggests topics like cyber security and genetic engineering as possible examples. You will use an inquiry framework to practice reading and analyzing articles, research studies, and foundational, literary, and philosophical texts. You will also listen to and view speeches, broadcasts, and personal accounts, and experience artistic works and performances. AP Seminar students are assessed with two through-course performance tasks and one end-of-course exam. The performance tasks consist of a team project and presentation, and an individual research-based essay and presentation. All three assessments are summative and are used to calculate a final AP score of 1 to 5

What Does the AP Research Course Involve?

The AP Research Course supports you as you design, plan, and conduct a yearlong research-based investigation on a topic of individual interest, documenting your process with a portfolio. This course serves to deepen skills you developed in AP Seminar by helping you to understand research methodology, employ ethical research practices, and access, analyze, and synthesize information to build, present, and defend an argument. You may choose to develop your research project based on one of the following:

-Dig deeper into a topic studied in an AP course

-Work across academic areas with an interdisciplinary topic

-Study a new area of interest, perhaps one for further study at the college level

Your work in the AP Research course culminates in an academic paper of 4,000 to 5,000 words and a presentation with an oral defense. Your final AP score of 1 to 5 will be based entirely on your paper and your oral defense.

How To Enroll

The AP Capstone Diploma is still in its earliest stages. It is just now beginning its third year in operation and a heavy push is still underway to increase enrollment and offerings. To find out if the AP Capstone Diploma program is available at your school or one nearby, check the list of Current AP Capstone Schools. As the program gains momentum, more and more schools are offering this program.

If your school does not yet offer the AP Capstone Diploma and you are interested in pursuing it, find out who your school’s AP Coordinator is and arrange a meeting to discuss the program. You may find that your school is already in the process of applying to join the AP Capstone Diploma program. If not, urge your AP Coordinator to learn more about the program by filling out an AP Capstone Interest Form or reviewing the AP Capstone Implementation Guide.

Alternatively, if your school has no intention of joining the AP Capstone Diploma program, you might consider the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma or a self-designed course load of challenging AP and honors classes. If none of these are available, you may get other ideas about course registration from CollegeVine’s What If My School Doesn’t Offer AP or IB Courses?


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.